Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of THE OUTGOING TIDE at Square One Theatre Company
Through March 20th
Forgive me for starting this review with a rather crude analogy (but I’ve been waiting for just the right show to make it). I have always considered myself a filmmaker and a playwright first, but every once in a while my law background rears its ugly head. In a famous obscenity case, Justice Potter Stewart of the United States Supreme Court, in avoiding a concrete definition of obscenity, memorialized forever the famous statement “I know it [obscenity} when I see it.” I believe the same is true for GREAT theatre. I know it when I see it. The other evening my wife (and co-reviewer) and I had the incredibly good fortune to see GREAT theatre – The Outgoing Tide written by Bruce Graham, directed by Tom Holehan and presented by Square One Theatre Company.
We see a lot of really good theatre, whether it be amateur or professional. Most of the theatres have sponsors and donors behind them. They get insightful and creative directors and talented and dedicated actors and staff. It is rare that we come away unable to report absolutely no redeeming qualities (there’s that analogy to obscenity again). But there are definite lines in the sand that mark good theatre, really good theatre and GREAT theatre. The incoming tide has brought in a true pearl in The Outgoing Tide (okay, maybe I’m crossing a line with these analogies now).
The play begins in medias res, with Gunner, a retired teamster, fishing on the Chesapeake Bay talking to someone whom appears to be a stranger to the area. We quickly find out that the stranger is actually Jack, Gunner’s son, and Gunner does not recognize him because of Alzheimer’s (although his condition is never identified as such). Gunner vacillates from lucidity to dementia throughout the play. Peg, Gunner’s wife and Jack’s mother, wants to move to a managed care facility and seeks the support of her son. Meanwhile, Gunner, in his more lucid moments, hatches his own plan for the course of his future. We are given backstory through flashbacks showing the three characters in younger days.
The Outgoing Tide is a three-character play in one setting. Yet, never did I have heinie itch, restless legs, or a moment of disengagement. The acting on the part of all three characters was simply staggering. I saw bits of my parents in both Peg and Gunner as well as some of myself in Jack. Peggy Nelson is the personification of the caregiver, raised in a different place and time – when family trumped everything – a period in history which in many ways was simpler and, at the same time, more complex. Damian Long perfectly plays the conflicted only child: dutiful, yet at times, disgruntled. His dysfunctional issues derive from his estrangement with his alpha-teamster father who often sneered at his love of cooking and his gentler pursuits. Little does he realize that he in fact perpetuating the cycle of estrangement with his own son who sits around all day playing video games. Last, but definitely not least, is Al Kulcsar’s stunning portrayal of Gunner. In researching the play (it’s so new it’s not even on Wikipedia yet) I discovered that two of my favorite actors played the part of Gunner in prior performances – John Mahoney and Peter Strauss (who I’ve loved ever since Rich Man Poor Man). All I can say is, while John Mahoney and Peter Strauss may have played to perfection the role of Gunner, for me, Al Kulscar WAS Gunner. He is now the standard by which I will judge all future Gunners. Yes, he was that good.
The play by the talented playwright Bruce Graham has captured the quintessential issues involved when someone close to you is physically and/or mentally deteriorating. Everyone who has been in this position can relate to this play. And if you aren’t in that position yet, it’s just a matter of time. Life and loss, grief etc. are all rites of passages that we all must at some point experience. We clearly see the family as it goes through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. While some of the issues and themes have been covered in other productions such as the play as Whose Life Is It Anyway? and the film The Notebook, Mr. Graham deftly spins a fresh spider web of intrigue and anticipation that captures its viewers like proverbial flies.
Kudos must go to Tom Holehan, Artistic Director, and Richard P. Pheneger, General Manager, for bringing this important play to our community. Mr. Holehan’s direction was sheer genius. Having directed many films and theatre in my time, all I can say is WOW – I still have chills as I write this review.
The play was performed at the Stratford Academy in what appeared to be its gymnasium. But great theatre is great theatre no matter where it is performed. We had the opportunity to interview the playwright Robert Patrick, a recognized pioneer in theatre and one of the founders of Off-Off-Broadway. His plays, those of Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein and others were born in a little club in NYC called Café Cino. Thank you, Square One Theatre Company for providing a truly GREAT and ENRICHING theatre experience!
Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?
— Henry David Thoreau
Alfred Adler was a pioneering psychologist who furthered our understanding of the complex, holistic view of the individual; yet, he said, that individual is not alone, but instead is indivisibly intertwined in the entirety of his or her social context – family, culture, and history. It is through that connectedness of the self to others that empathy may be borne. Empathy: that uniquely human ability to understand and to share the feelings of another.
And what better way is there for us to look through others’ eyes than through the telling of stories? Whether we are seeing them, hearing them, or reading them, we are given the gift of an opportunity to feel. And it matters not through what medium a story is told, it matters only what we embrace of it and what we allow into our hearts.
These are the very threads which run through Square One Theatre Company’s The Outgoing Tide, a story of aging and of love, of loss, of grief, and of forgiveness. A story of self and of family; of coming to terms with whom one is and accepting whom others may be. (And it brings to light the fact that you can’t choose your family.) But above all, it is a story of empathy; being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes if but for a moment, and to put their needs before your own.
With staggering poignancy, Bruce Graham’s The Outgoing Tide is a three-character story told both in present-day and through a series of flashbacks, meticulously sculpting the wholeness of each individual as well as the interwoven, albeit dysfunctional system of the family. Set on a dock and in a cottage on the Chesapeake Bay, Gunner is the authoritarian patriarch who is experiencing increasingly frustrating and debilitating symptoms related to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease (his particular affliction is not identified) – his memory and mental capacity wax and wane yet his love of fishing and of the water do not. A gruff, retired teamster, his former heavy-handedness with his only son is coming back to haunt him as he reflects back upon his life. When his wife, Peg, wants to move them from their comfortable and familiar waterside home to an elder care facility, Gunner sets a different plan in motion, but he must first engage his somewhat estranged son, Jack, to help. Jack comes when called and reveals he has troubles of his own, including a pending divorce and three children, one of whom gives him agita.
Jack’s loyalties are torn as he attempts to dodge the landmines of family while navigating the haunting echoes of his childhood. He continues to feel the push and pull of parents who’ve always put him in the middle (“Don’t tell your father” and “Don’t tell your mother”). With the family now facing its most difficult test, Jack, who has a weak sense of self, is hard pressed to know the answers. But he must work to see the world through each parent’s eyes, and in doing so, he also is able to gain some clarity in his own issues with his son.
Al Kulcsar as Gunner is stunning. In fact his brilliance shines so brightly you’ll need sunglasses. Kulcsar’s portrayal of the tough, demanding husband and father is as authentic as it gets – and you even run the risk of not liking him at times. Then he brings you edge, tears filling your eyes, as his mind slips into the vortex of memory loss, confusion, and dementia. And when you least expect it, his acerbic banter rife with prickly barbs has you in stitches. Kulscar is pure joy and pure genius.
Damian Long as Jack is perfectly brooding, frustrated, weak, and resentful. He plays both the dutiful son and ultimately becomes the voice of reason, somehow eventually able to help his parents make sense of the grave matters at hand, even while unable to get a grasp on his own.
Peggy Nelson is outstanding as the conflicted wife and mother. She is loyal to her husband but also to her only son. She is becoming weary from her husband’s growing needs but also has concerns with regard to her own future. She is at a crossroads and there is no perfect solution.
Tom Holehan expertly directs this stellar cast through a story to which everyone may relate on some level. Life is fraught with challenges; but through even the darkest of times, one can find humor – The Outgoing Tide reminds us of this. There is not a moment when you aren’t drawn in to each character’s difficulties – giving life and dimension to Graham’s very real story.
The simple but pristine set (kudos to Greg Fairbend, Frank Fartely, and Robert Mastrioni for scenery) is not on an elevated stage at Stratford Academy, but on the same level as the audience and only mere feet away – allowing for something of a surreal intimacy. One is able to feel as if they are truly a voyeur into this family’s world as they grapple with the kind of life and death issues we all have faced or will someday.
Square One Theatre Company has brought what only may be described as thoughtful, exquisite, and engaging theatre to Connecticut. Thank you!