Chenango River stages fine production of poignant play

Reviewed by George Basler

Alzheimer’s disease is beginning to steal Gunner’s memory, but the blustering family patriarch is not about to go gently into that dark night.

Instead, he hatches a plan to leave his wife and son financially secure and, he hopes, make up for the mistakes and shortcomings that have tainted his life with them over the years.

This is the heart of Bruce Graham’s fine new play, The Outgoing Tide, which is being given a first-rate production at the Chenango River Theatre in Greene.

The three-character play, which opened Friday (Sept. 26), deftly blends humor and heartache as it deals with issues of illness, death and personal choice. While these are heavy issues — let’s face it: Alzheimer’s disease seems like a downer of a topic — the CRT staging is never morose or maudlin. Instead the show, which runs through Oct. 13, is surprisingly funny, in parts, and emotionally compelling throughout.

Moreover, the play is provocative, as well as poignant, as it deals with the question of when, or if, it’s proper to just “let go” and “know when to leave.” I suspect not everyone is going to agree with the decisions made by Gunner and his family, but the play will get you thinking.

Credit for the fine production goes to director Bill Lelbach, who also designed the set and is artistic director of the theater company. Lelbach’s direction never allows the action to become overwrought or descend into bathos. He is especially skillful in staging the flashback scenes that punctuate the play and reveal the reasons for emotional baggage that the characters carry. Credit for these scenes also should go to lighting designer E.D. Intemann.

Gunner is, in some ways, an unattractive character who consistently reminds the other characters that he negotiated with Teamsters as the owner of a small trucking company. His toughness can veer into the bullying of his son and that strains his relationship with Peg, his wife of 51 years.

But, as acted by Michael Arcesi, the character never loses our sympathy. Arcesi can be achingly vulnerable when Gunner realizes his mind is slipping and in scenes in which he expresses regret for actions that he realizes have alienated his son and wife. Especially effective is a scene in which he longs for “a mulligan,” a term for a do-over in golf, so that he could correct past mistakes.

As his son, Jack, Drew Kahl successfully captures the character’s conflicting feels of resentment and love toward a difficult father. Kahl’s role is more low key than the other two leads, but he never lets the character disappear into the scenery. He strongly portrays Jack’s frustration, and sense of somehow falling short, as he deals with his pending divorce and anger toward his slacker son while, at the same time, trying to cope with the family crisis.

Joan Mullaney is deeply moving as Peg, who gave up her dreams to be a teacher to marry Gunner after becoming pregnant with Jack. Her monologue on a fear of loneliness after a life as a wife and mother (“It’s what I do”) is one of the play’s highlights. The character faces the most difficult moral choice in the play, and Mullaney is heartbreaking as she makes her decision. Her final kiss with Gunner is breathtaking.

The play is not without its problems. Gunner’s switch between moments of lucidity and his oncoming dementia can be jarring. A scene in which, in the midst of dementia, he mistakes his son for a old friend and unburdens some of his feelings seems to come out of nowhere as an attempt to resolve some plot points. Still it plays well in the CRT production.

In the end, The Outgoing Tide is a well-constructed effort that earns its emotional response honestly. It’s worth the drive, and more so.

IF YOU GO: The Outgoing Tide runs through Oct. 13 with performances at 7:30p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for Thursdays, $22 for Fridays, $23 for Saturdays and $21 for Sundays. Call the box office at 656-8499 or go online to www.chenangorivertheatre.org for tickets. The Chenango River Theatre is located at 991 State Route 12 in Greene.

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