Monday, February 8, 2016

Review: 'The Outgoing Tide'

The Delaware Theatre Company production of Bruce Graham's play about dementia and its effect on a family is first-rate. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from Wilmington.

Review: 'The Outgoing Tide'

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Ian Lithgow (left), Peter Strauss and Michael Learned in Delaware Theatre Company's production of "The Outgoing Tide." Photo by Matt Urban.

By Howard Shapiro

The prolific Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham must be leading a charmed life. In a matter of months, The Outgoing Tide, his funny and searing exploration of dementia and its effect on a family, has been given not one but two terrific productions here.

The first was in Center City in the spring, at Philadelphia Theatre Company. The second now plays in Wilmington, where Delaware Theatre Company takes The Outgoing Tide — with its perfect narrative arc, smooth writing, and genuine tone — and runs with it in a production directed by Broadway producer Bud Martin, in his first season as artistic director in Wilmington. He had been running Act II Playhouse in Ambler.

Martin assembles a formidable cast: Peter Strauss (TV’s Rich Man, Poor Man and others) as Gunner, the salt-of-the-earth retired owner of a Philly trucking firm, who lives down the Shore with his wife, played by Michael Learned (The Waltons, Nurse). Ian Lithgow (a recurring role in 3rd Rock From the Sun) portrays their adult son, in the middle of his own divorce problems while he’s being confronted with those of his parents.

I list their TV credits, but all three are solidly grounded (and working) as stage actors. Here, they are an ensemble whose parts are cobbled by Martin into a tight and seamless fit.

Graham never tells us what type of dementia is afflicting Gunner — it may be Alzheimer’s disease, and whatever it is, it’s not going to get better. He’s able to chatter about stuff he has read, he remembers to pack every headache pill he may need on a fishing excursion, yet at the same time, he may not recognize his own kin. Sometimes, he loses words and thoughts — except for one, that he will never end up in any form of assisted living. Even as Gunner loses his faculties, he craftily plans for the future on his own terms.

It’s a heady play, and if you have dealt personally with the subject matter, my guess is that The Outgoing Tide will sweep you somewhere very close to home. In that, Graham’s play is much like another current production: the musical Next to Normal at the Arden Theatre Company, a piece of theater that moves audiences in general, and especially those who have been afflicted by mental illness or are close to someone who has.

The Outgoing Tide is filled with everyday talk that surrounds such confounding matters — the denial, the searching, the constant spooling of ideas for a way out. “He looks great,” says the son, countering his mother’s assessment. “You don’t see him every day!” she responds. “I need help.”

What makes The Outgoing Tide so much more arresting is Graham’s infusion of humor into its predicament — in all but its most severe moments, the conversation is funny enough to provoke laughter. Strauss’ portrayal of Gunner is largely responsible for this, and spot-on; he has an older man’s limp and nervous zeal, a South Philly bravado, and a way of making you wish you’d known him forever. Learned is superb as his increasingly suffering wife, whose sole job all along has been watching over him and her son, played by Lithgow with a clear sense of a guy perplexed by how to handle Dad.

The question is pondered on Dirk Durossette’s handsome, woody seaside set. James Leitner’s lighting enhances the play’s shifting moods, and David O’Connor’s sound design becomes essential to the plot as it moves forward. Be assured that it does, in a way that encourages you to mull over after the final curtain call.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or, or follow on Twitter #philastage. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,

The Outgoing Tide: Through Oct. 28 at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water St., Wilmington. Tickets: $35-$49. Information: 302-594-1100

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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