By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Bruce Graham’s fine new play, The Outgoing Tide, at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, is deeply moving and surprisingly funny, a straight-talking, unpretentious meditation on Alzheimer’s and end-of-life suffering: “Quality of life. Kiss my ass.”
Directed with invisible finesse and strength by James J. Christy, the excellent cast provides bedrock realism, refusing any of the cloying or maudlin possibilities of the topic. The fact is, Gunner (Richard Poe), a tough guy who ran a trucking company and dealt with the Teamsters, is losing his memory and his mind; he still has enough of himself left to plan his exit, refusing to settle for years of humiliating deterioration in a “home.”
His wife of fifty years, Peg (Robin Moseley) frets and tries not to let her exasperation show when Gunner repeats his request for pancakes for the twentieth time. The good Catholic girl she was has been sorely tested, but taking care of her family defines her: “It’s what I do.” Jack (Anthony Lawton) has come to their lakeside house to visit—he’s in the middle of a divorce, and is unbearably aggravated by his slacker son, but also has to face the many painful grudges he holds against the father who was too often tough and mocking.
In the course of a couple of days, and with Graham’s gift for character-defining dialogue, we get to know these people and see it all from all three points of view. Everyone wants a “Mulligan,” a golf term for a do-over, but people are stuck with the lives they’ve lived, the selves they’ve become.
The salesman dies again. The Outgoing Tide struck me as a re-imagining of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with every element in place: the insurance money, the father-son conflict, the long-suffering submissive wife, the head of the household losing his mind. Structurally, too, the influence is clear: memory scenes enacting past conversations, all softly lit and a filled with regret and revelations, punctuate the play. And like its iconic ancestor, Graham’s play is a profound meditation on married American men: “She’s not a truck, Dad.” “I wish she was. I understand trucks.”
The beautiful lighting (R. Lee Kennedy) evokes the melancholy of a summer house in autumn as the year draws to a close. In the flashback to the night Gunner proposed to Peg, he assures her with youthful confidence and painful irony, “If there’s anything we got, it’s plenty of time.”
The play begins with Jack looking up at the birds flying south: “Knowing when to leave. Smarter’n people.” Near the end of the play, Gunner says, “We’re so smart these days, but too dumb to know when it’s over.” Bruce Graham’s wise play lies between those two remarks.
Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad & Lombard Sts. Through April 22. Tickets $46-59. Information: 215-985-0420 or www.PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org