Ebb, flow, drift of dementia

Stellar ensemble in the funny, searing take on the disease and how a family copes.

The Wilmington production stars Ian Lithgow as the son and Michael Learned as the mother and the wife of Gunner (played by Peter Strauss), a retired owner of a Philly trucking firm who is losing his faculties . MATT URBAN

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.


The Outgoing Tide

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

or www.delawaretheatre.org.

Contact Howard Shapiro

at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com,

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Read his recent work at www.philly.com/howardshapiro.

Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.