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New York City Theater

"The Outgoing Tide"
59E59 Theater

How do you write about an Alzheimer’s-afflicted father and end-of-my-rope mother without careening the audience into a funk so severe it will ignore or, worse, fail to connect to the very human heartaches these people are heir to? How avoid maudlin preachiness yet still evoke tears and empathy?

Bruce Graham manages the feat by writing on a minuscule canvas, closing in on a small family in his compelling “The Outgoing Tide.” Sensitively directed by Bud Martin and splendidly acted by Peter Strauss, Michael Learned and Ian Lithgow, the evening is a pointillism painting, its tiny dots mixed together by the viewer.

Strauss is Gunner, whose lucid moments are interspersed with bouts of forgetfulness. In the first scene, he has a conversation with someone he treats as a stranger but who turns out to be his grown, about-to-be-divorced son, Jack.

Peg, his wife and Jack’s mother, has reluctantly made arrangements in a long-term care facility which she promises she’ll visit often. Gunner has seen the place and wants no part of a place where when “you croak, they put ya on a conveyor belt and bring in the next one.” Although his alternative solution is not something neither Peg nor Jack can accept, it is, after all, his choice, while he still has mind to make a choice.

Through somewhat awkward flashbacks, Graham sketches in Gunner and Peg’s courtship plus vignettes about their life together. Threading throughout are the little white lies we tell each other and parents tell children (“I know a boy who sat too close to the television and his eyeballs melted and he fell over dead right there in the living room”).

This is not a work that seeks to uncover great themes, but its tight focus is like the stones Jack skips into the water. It’s the little things, the quotidian way we all live that makes the characters – and the audience – remember that life runs the gauntlet of love and laughter, cruelty and boredom.

Strauss is wonderful as Gunner – tough and gruff, treating his situation with guileless, unsentimental sense. As Peg, the ever-graceful Learned hides her vulnerability behind a façade of pragmatism. As son Jack, Lithgow avoids melancholy, giving the character an arc of growth from puzzlement to understanding and acceptance.

These are people caught in untenable dilemmas that, nevertheless, must be faced. Graham’s canvas may be small, but his people reflect us all.

--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 30, 2012

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