In the opening scene of The Outgoing Tide, now on the boards at CoHo Theatre, Jack, the only child in the family the play focuses on, looks up at a migrating flock of birds and remarks at how amazing it is that they know when to get into formation and fly southward. Bruce Graham's story of aging and death suggests humans, too, know when it's time to leave—but, as from a great party, we find it terribly difficult to get up and go.
It's hard to synopsize The Outgoing Tide's plot without giving away too much. Suffice it to say the play, directed at CoHo by Stephanie Mulligan, is about a man, Gunner, with a rapidly deteriorating case of Alzheimer's disease. His wife, Peg, wants him to move with her from their house on Chesapeake Bay into an assisted-living facility. But after asking Jack, his son, to make a last-minute visit home, Gunner lays out a different plan, disturbing yet undeniably sane.
The Outgoing Tide is essentially a play about the type of end-of-life issues which more and more people are contending with as the population ages. More specifically—and here a spoiler alert is in order—it's about the choice to die with dignity rather than live for living's sake, and the implications of that choice for one's family. This subject matter makes The Outgoing Tide a topical and relevant play. But for this reviewer, the story's central conflict lacked tension—and I suspect that many in Oregon, which enshrined the right to die in state law more than two decades ago, would share that feeling. For Oregonians, the questions with which the characters in this play are grappling may simply be less urgent.
Fortunately, The Outgoing Tide is as much about those questions as it is about family—the responsibilities family members have to one another and the ways in which family shapes our identity. In exploring these issues, Graham has created a clan that is distinct yet relatable, and wonderfully complex. Watching the playwright show the relationships among the sides of this familial triangle is a pleasure, like seeing some dramatic Pythagorean theorem proven.
In CoHo's production, Graham's well-shaded characters receive nuanced performances from a trio of seasoned actors: Tobias Andersen, as the tough, charismatic Gunner; Jane Fellows, as the deeply conflicted Peg; and Gary Norman, who as Jack manages to convey a complicated brew of love and resentment with an economy of expression. Scenic designer Kristeen Willis Crosser also demonstrates great economy: by using exactly the kinds of colors and materials you'd find in a beach house, she evokes the play's bayside setting with just a few pieces (and a lovely painted backdrop).
The Outgoing Tide
Thru Nov 9 Although the contemporary end-of-life issues which The Outgoing Tide deals with may not resonate with some viewers, the play's timeless story of family—and CoHo's superb staging—make this a tide worth catching before it goes out for good.