In Tandem Theatre’s latest is a very nuanced family drama in which James Pickering plays a man nearing the end of his life. His wife (Susan Sweeney) and middle-aged son (Simon Jon Provon) deal with a man who is a concave shadow of the man they had known their whole life.
On the surface, The Outgoing Tide is a slow metabolic exploration into human drama. A comprehensive synopsis of the basic plot would put anyone to sleep. There isn’t much that actually happens. Go and casually see the drama and you’ll see a bittersweet family drama, but you’ll be missing like...90% of what’s actually going on in the play, which is actually breathtakingly deep...a symphony of nuance that seems to echo in endless depth.
And then there’s the fact that it’s about the Alzheimer’s/dementia symptoms that effect 6% of people 65 or older and is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. It deals with problems that a growing number of people are having to deal with as baby boomers and their parents advance in age. It’s not anything anyone wants to have to think about. So...The Outgoing Tide is a drama that rewards those willing to think a lot about something no one really wants to think about. So yeah...I don’t envy anyone trying to market this show, but it’s really REALLY good.
James Pickering plays a guy named Gunner. We find out over the course of the play that he’s always been really independent. It’s an independence he’s wanted to instill in his son for a long time, but he’s never been able to manage the right finesse--always instigating slightly cruel jokes on his son that are good-natured, but ultimately harmful. Pickering summons a gruff charm about him in the role. This is rally important because he could really come across like a jerk if there wasn’t something there to invite thought about Gunner and who he really is.
It’s delicately implicit in and around the edges of the script that Gunner’s always challenging those around him to think for themselves, which is really noble. The way he goes about it is hopelessly gruff, but Pickering constructs a character with enough depth to make him seem positively heroic. The dementia is getting to Gunner and he’s building a very sophisticated endgame for his life in which he’s trying to outsmart his own dementia and sneak his way out of life on his own terms.
Simon Jon Provon’s performance is its own kind of heroism. There’s a tremendous amount of thought and planning that’s gone into the Provon’s portrayal of Gunner’s midd-aged son Jack. We’re seeing the character out of his daily life. He’s visiting parents that he’s familiar with without necessarily being very intimate with. He’s going through a divorce and dealing with a teenaged son who doesn’t seem motivated to do much of anything, but that stress rests around the edges of the central drama.
So Jack’s exhausted as he goes to visit his parents...echoes of a past which are beginning to dissipate into dementia and loss. The challenge that Provon has to deal with is making an emotionally exhausted man feel dramatically dynamic in a slow-moving plot. Any actor would want to amp-up the affect to keep the character from feeling dramatically flat, but anything more than what Provon brings to the stage here would feel totally out-of-synch with the character. It’s an admirably reserved kind of energy that he’s bringing to the stage here.
Susan Sweeney plays a character who is heroic in her own way. Like Provon, she has to mute her overall frustration in character. Gunner’s wife Peg has been dealing with his relentlessly progressive dementia for weeks that are going to feel like years. She’s very upset over Gunner’s stubbornness and so...like Provon, she’s playing someone without the energy to be toweringly dramatic.
The man Peg’s spent her life with is dying...anyone would WANT to break out into a heavy Shakespearian drama-mode but real life isn’t like that...and The Outgoing Tide is real life made moodily poetic for the stage. There’s a visceral quality to the emotion that Sweeney delivers quite well. Peg had been very young when she met and married Gunner. There had been the possibility of a carer in teaching. Instead she ended up taking care of people her whole life. And now the last person she’s taken care of is about to make his exit and she doesn’t know what to do about it. Sweeney has a gentle passion about her that serves the character well. She’s allowed the strongest visible emotions onstage and it’s to her credit that she doesn’t try to make them any more explosive than they are. As with everyone else onstage, Sweeney is very careful not to be too explosive.
Director Chris Flieller has worked with the ensemble here to deliver a very thoughtful kind of moodiness about the drama. Flieller is great with comedy. Punchlines are easy. It takes a lot of courage to go for something infinitely more subtle and nuanced like this.
In Tandem Theatre’s production of The Outgoing Tide runs through March 18th at the Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit In Tandem online.