An elderly father and his family face Alzheimer’s and the right to die with dignity. Sounds like a rollicking good time.
Oddly enough, the production of Bruce Graham’s impressionistic black comedy The Outgoing Tide, currently running at Latham’s Curtain Call Theater, actually is a rollicking good time.
Much of the credit, of course, goes to Graham’s razor-sharp script, which depicts dysfunctional family dynamics, terminal illness, and end-of-life choices in a bleakly hilarious light with only the slightest hint of sentiment.
The rest of the credit is equally shared between Carol Max’s bold direction, Laura Brignull’s all-purpose set, some truly remarkable lighting and sound effects, and—most importantly—three absolutely note-perfect performances.
One subpar performance could easily sink a play like this. Play the characters too straight, and it would sag under the weight of its subject matter. Play them too light and the play comes off as shallow and mean-spirited. The Outgoing Tide is a balancing act and this cast maintains that balance brilliantly.
Kevin Gardner is Jack, the adult son with problems of his own—including an impending divorce—who finds himself summoned to his parents’ tidewater home to deal with his father’s rapidly failing faculties. Jack has been the subject of his father’s scorn and twisted sense of humor for his entire life. Now he needs to find the strength to sympathize and forgive a man who has lied to him and made him question his own manhood since childhood.
Curtain Call vet Joanne Westervelt is Peg, the long-suffering wife who is now suffering still more at the prospect of losing the man to whom she has given the best years of her life, while simultaneously relishing the prospect of being the caretaker of his declining years.
Finally, John Noble is Gunner, an insensitive boor who is proud of both his blue-collar roots and the killer instinct that allowed him to succeed in spite of his lack of education. Now, after a lifetime of hard work, Gunnar is confronted with a choice between suicide and a future as a doddering shadow of his former self.
Amazingly, Graham manages to milk copious laughter from this tragic troika, and the cast ably carries out the author’s intentions. In one of the play’s most remarkable moments, mother and son reflect on Gunner’s options. Peg notes that Gunner’s first solution was “a murder/suicide pact”. Peg refuses this on the grounds that “he’d probably shoot me and then forget to shoot himself!”
Not only did the audience crack up on this line, but Kevin Gardner’s Jack dissolved into a fit of laughter that was not only believable, but perfectly summed up the love-hate relationship between relatives. Jack laughs, not just because what his mother said was amusing, but because he recognizes the truth of her statement, and the inherent humor of that truth.
While the show’s denouement is touching, it never sinks to Lifetime Network levels of treacle. We accept Gunner’s final decision because, in the end, nothing else makes sense. It serves as an apt punch line, even if it doesn’t elicit a laugh.