The Philadelphia Theatre Company renews its relationship with local playwright Bruce Graham with its excellent production of The Outgoing Tide.
Tide takes place in Elkton, Md., about an hour south of Philly (Graham knows the area because he has a home there), and follows a man named Gunner (Richard Poe), who is embarking on the final chapter of his life. A tough, blue-collar Philadelphian, Gunner sold the trucking company he built from scratch and along with his wife, Peg (Robin Moseley), has taken up permanent residence at their home overlooking the water.
We first encounter Gunner talking to a younger, middle-aged man named Jack (Tony Lawton). Gunner is telling Jack about the area, and we guess from the conversation that this is the first time the men have met. Tragically, that is not the case. Jack is Gunner’s 51-year-old son (a fact he’s reminded of by Peg). And while Gunner looks robust and remarkably fit for a man of his age, his mind is being stolen a piece at a time. The thief is Alzheimer’s.
Director James J. Christy has collaborated with Graham often in the past, and his familiarity with the playwright is evident. There is nothing forced about the production; Christy’s aim is to present the play clearly and without embellishments of any kind. The performances are natural without being overly restrained, and the lighting, set and costumes are all designed to be realistic and functional. Like Graham’s play, Christy’s production is a straightforward, focused and forceful depiction of a family in crisis.
Graham appears to have a knack for writing authentic male characters: both Poe’s Gunner and Lawton’s Jack ring true to our daily lives. Gunner is accustomed to tough fights (he brags about his dealings with the Teamsters), but he’s finally met an opponent he can’t lick. Jack is neither as secure nor as rugged as his father, but he is a skilled mediator, accustomed to refereeing his parents’ disputes.
The surprise in Graham’s writing is the insight and clarity he brings to the play’s lone female, Peg. In Moseley’s strong performance, Peg is a smart, practical woman who has no intention of abandoning her husband. She has dedicated her life to her family (she describes taking care of them as her “only skill”) and she’s the sort of person who needs to feel needed. Armed with brochures from the area’s best retirement homes and health-care facilities, she has made plans for the difficulties that inevitably lie ahead. Gunner, however, has made his own plans. (Gunner and Peg visited the retirement home’s medical center and he wants no part of it.) “A man takes care of his family,” he announces to Peg and Jack. “If they were dogs, we’d put them to sleep,” he says referring to the elderly patients attached to respirators and other life-giving machines. “If you have to feed someone Jell-O through a tube, it’s time to give up,” he concludes.
Despite all of this talk about death, Tide isn’t a downer. Graham’s sardonic wit and dark humor come across very clearly. Although the script doesn’t shy away from exposing the disturbing effects of Alzheimer’s, at its core Tide is really about family relationships of all kinds: father-son, mother-son and husband-wife.
Audiences will no doubt debate the play’s conclusion, and some people will find Tide’ s unsentimental exploration of Alzheimer’s to be troubling. Others, however, may find cause for celebration in the final scene. Regardless of how you perceive the characters’ actions, Graham’s candid play is bound to provoke a response.
Through April 22. $25-$59. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad & Lombard sts. 215.985.0420.