Why again are we laughing?

Bruce Graham's "Outgoing Tide,' by PTC (1st review)

5 minute read
Lawton (left), Poe, Moseley: Unbearable decisions. (Photo: Mark Garvin.)
Lawton (left), Poe, Moseley: Unbearable decisions. (Photo: Mark Garvin.)
In the East Coast premiere of Bruce Graham's The Outgoing Tide, Gunner Concannon (played by Richard Poe) suffers from mild dementia or, more specifically as he supposes, the start of Alzheimer's disease. He rips off plenty of good jokes at the disorder's expense.

A typical routine: Gunner says something wild about what he'll do to spare himself from end-stage disease. His wife screams, "Are you crazy?!" Taking that as a particular reference to his brain, Gunner utters a self-deprecating witticism about its current capacity. Gunner often delivers these comments in an undertone, almost like an aside, like a man bravely trying to tame his worst fears.

Laughing at the many poignant gags in The Outgoing Tide gave me pause. More than 5 million Americans— that is, about one in 60— may suffer from Alzheimer's. On opening night, the almost full house at the 365-seat Suzanne Roberts Theatre was liberally sprinkled with graying pates, mine included. That computes to perhaps six of us who should have been crying instead, not counting the 24 or so family members and others who will be pressed into service as our caregivers.

Plain talk

Credit the playwright's immense talent, a first-rate cast of three, and innovative staging for creating a powerful theater experience that allows us to ignore that peril and enjoy the production.

Graham is a master of commonplace dialogue, and his scenes unfold to reveal not merely the head of the household losing his mind, but also the underlying family tensions that have built up over the years, which this moment of crisis brings forward.

We witness a family's conflicts, wishes, dreams and defeats in the gritty and literal language used by South Philly people who never inhaled the jargon of psychoanalysis (though they might have benefited from some treatment).

I haven't read Graham's script, but experiencing its natural rhythms from the audience, I recalled reading Death of a Salesman as a kid, before I saw it on stage. Arthur Miller's dialogue was so unaffected, non-literary, sounding so much like my friends' parents, that I could hardly imagine that it could resonate on the stage. Graham's dialogue is so polished that it seems equally unpolished.

Doctors and priests

The laughs, as appalling as they are in the very act of happening, constitute the play's indubitable strength. Alzheimer's is no joke, but when good-natured people with a sense of humor find it creeping up on them, they may, if they're lucky, turn it on its head— a momentary victory in a losing war.

That's Gunner's situation. He utters many cavalier wisecracks— about Italians, Catholics, priests (many chuckles from the audience) and doctors (notably fewer)— but when, despite his dwindling supply of ammunition, he turns his guns on Alzheimer's, he becomes devastatingly clever and trenchant.

Poe is impeccable in deadpanning these lines. He's equally convincing when he momentarily forgets a word and slaps his palm against his forehead. Yet one wonders: Is this how people with Alzheimer's really act?

Gunner's wife or son provides the word, or the thing he's asking for (for instance, his glasses), and the family conversation, or argument, continues, as if no disruption had occurred.

Daring escape

But his slips mount up, and someone must take action. Gunner's wife, Peg (Robin Moseley) has a solution, but it's self-serving. Son Jack (Anthony Lawton), though about 50 years old, remains scarred from his father's absolute dominance over him in growing up; he's unprepared to clarify anything.

That leaves Gunner, an aging lion from Tasker Street. He has a lifetime of proving himself resourceful. He built a trucking business from scratch and had to deal with unions, the mob and a partner who died pitifully from cancer. He figures out a daring escape from Alzheimer's as well.

Lawton is himself a consummate actor who in this role must yield the scenes to Poe. His character Jack is fully credible as the non-confrontational son Gunner raised, rendering him all the more convincing as he changes and matures toward the end of the play.

As Peg, Moseley does a great deal of shouting in Act I— her attempts to get through to her husband after a half-century of trying— but in Act II, she undergoes a change that makes Graham's gripping denouement possible, and she is just beautiful to watch as she rises to reach an unbearable decision.

Skipping stones on water

A moving stage, set at an angle, effectively shuttles us from inside the Concannons' retirement home to their sandy beachfront and back. The sound effects are amazingly detailed: You can hear every touch of a stone against the water surface when father and son sidearm a flat shard to see how many hops they can produce.

In the program to The Outgoing Tide, PTC's dramaturge, Carrie Chapter, provides a primer on Alzheimer's. In the future, an explanation won't be necessary. By 2025, the number of people with the disease is expected to double, and everyone will have have had direct contact with it. When we see a production of The Outgoing Tide then, I hope we'll still be able to laugh along with Gunner.♦

To read a related comment by Kelly George, click here.
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

What, When, Where

The Outgoing Tide. By Bruce Graham; James J. Christy directed. Philadelphia Theatre Company production through April 22, 2012 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. (at Lombard). (215) 985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

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