Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
By Bruce Graham
Directed by Charles Towers
April 23 – May 17, 2015
50 East Merrimack Street
Lowell, MA 01852
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Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Lowell, MA) The decline of old age comes for so many of us, and yet there are few who are prepared to meet it on our own terms. In the powerful drama The Outgoing Tide, one patriarch races against time and his own failing memory to decide his fate in the face of dementia. This production is sure to spur thought-provoking discussions on aging and death, and it largely avoids the feel of a Lifetime Original medical drama of the week. We never lose sight of the individuality of the main character even as what makes him an individual slowly disintegrates.
As the play opens, Gunner (Ross Bickell), a pugnacious and quick-witted retiree, is seemingly talking to a stranger about life on the Chesapeake Bay. Eventually, his wife, Peg (Felicity Lafortune), reveals to him that he’s talking to his son, Jack (David Adkins). He seizes up and holds his head in his hands, confronting the now all-too-familiar feel of disorientation. Jack, who is in the midst of a cordial but difficult divorce, thinks he is here to referee a dispute between his mom and dad, a position he’s been thrust in throughout his life. Peg wants to move to an assisted care facility, but Gunner has other, more definitive plans about how his final moments of lucidity should play out. The three must confront what a good end is worth.
Ross Bickell deftly embodies the spirit of someone trying to maintain a mooring on reality. He portrays Gunner as one who is always hiding a seasick desperation behind a mask of bravado and quick-witted chatter. His delivery is never flowery or overdramatic, befitting a character who spent his entire life brawling with Teamsters at the negotiation table. Bickell’s staccato and off-tempo delivery and the frantic, but controlled energy he brings to his character does a perfect job leaving the rest of the cast off-kilter. At the start of the play, it feels as if Lafortune and Adkins deliver their lines a bit too theatrically, or perhaps it is their characters who do so, but by the middle, it appears that each thought onstage comes tumbling out new and fresh, leaving us on the edge of our seats and sometimes laughing despite the weighty subject matter.
The dialogue is sharper than the plot, and this production wrings the most out of the script. Clunky flashbacks bogs down some key moments in the production. Also, Bruce Graham chooses a bit unwisely to include a subplot about homosexuality that he never fully fleshes out, and it takes some of the oxygen out of the play. The script would have been better served if the family only had to deal with one central issue or if Graham truly wed the two issues together in a synchronous orbit. Since he does neither, the secondary issue becomes more of a throw-in. Just when the play is about to flounder, however, we are treated to another one-liner from Gunner, and the pulse of the action onstage quickens.
This production provides punctuation to the long and impressive tenure of its director, Charles Towers, the outgoing artistic director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. It seems a well-suited last play, and he hits the sweet spot of this script with his directorial choices. The frenetic pace of the action on stage is a bit more charged than in some of Towers’ recent productions, as if he, like Gunner, suddenly became acutely aware of the finiteness of time to get it right.