Sunday, March 6, 2016

Letting Go of the Ones We Love

The Outgoing Tide -- Square One Theatre Company -- Thru March 20

Damian Long, Al Kulcsar and Peggy Nelson

The last time tears rose while I was watching a play was several years ago during the final moments of Ivoryton’s superb production of The Miracle Worker. It doesn’t happen often – after all, I’m a gruff, cynical critic – but it happened again as I watched the closing scenes in Bruce Graham’s The Outgoing Tide¸ currently on the boards at Square One Theatre Company in Stratford. It has been said, though it may be apocryphal, that when President Lincoln finished delivering his Gettysburg Address there was utter silence, not because of disinterest but because what he had said was so moving. Such is the case with the audience response immediately after the final blackout of this lovely, touching, superbly acted production directed by Tom Holehan. Silence….that speaks volumes.

The setting is a home nestled on the Chesapeake Bay, the home of the Concannons: Gunner (Al Kulscar), his wife, Peg (Peggy Nelson), and their visiting son, Jack (Damian Long). The opening scene has the two men sitting on a dock as Gunner, plying a fishing rod, speaks about his son. Since the audience does not yet know the relationship between the two men, it seems as if Gunner is talking to a friend as he finds fault with the life his son has chosen. It is only with Peg’s entrance that we realize that Gunner, suffering from initial stages of dementia, has, unaware, been speaking to his own son. It is a chilling realization.

Damian Long and Al Kulcsar
On a minimal stage designed by Greg Fairbend, Frank Fartely and Robert Mastroni, what unfolds in this two-act drama is a peeling away of relationships to reveal what is at their core. There is the present, as Gunner battles the closing darkness, Peg tries to deal with the dementia, and Jack seeks to understand his relationship to his father and mother, and a series artfully staged flashbacks that reveal the seeds of what would become a tangled garden of emotions, all punctuated by several tropes that include pancakes and skipping stones across water.

There’s a certain Death of a Salesman feel to this play, for Gunner, in his sane moments, is obsessed with leaving a legacy and making amends for actual and perceived sins. As Gunner, Kulcsar is simply superb. He not only creates a Gunner as he was but creates a Gunner falling to pieces, and in those moments when he realizes what is happening to him he rages against the night that is about to descend. It’s a mesmerizing, complete performance. At times he rages, Lear-like, and at others he is haunted, and yet, especially in the flash-backs, we also see the man who fell in love with the woman he dubs his Grace Kelly. It is a poignant, perceptive, complete performance.

Not to be outdone, Nelson offers us a woman whose dreams were put on hold when she met Gunner, a woman who has dedicated herself to the nurturing of a family that is now disintegrating. Where Gunner is given to somewhat caustic jokes that seem funny but bear a sting, Peg is overly protective, raising Jack with a series of warning about boys who did this or that and had to suffer the consequences.

Peggy Noonan and Al Kulcsar
Long, as Jack, is a middle-aged man going through a divorce who has yet to resolve his relationship with his parents. He is a product of the mailed fist of his father and the over-protectiveness of his mother, and in this visit he simply, at first, doesn’t know how to respond to what is revealed about his parents’ relationship and his father’s dementia.

It would be a spoiler to reveal what is the driving force behind the rising action of the play and its climax, but it raises questions about the quality of life and the process of letting go. Since we easily come to care about these three people, the play’s final moments cannot help but move you on several levels. It is capped by a simple wave of goodbye. It is a gesture that speaks to the heart and the soul.

Watching and responding to The Outgoing Tide confirms why we go to the theater. We want to be swept away; we want to be moved; we want to come away understanding a bit more about the human comedy. This outstanding production, with its superb cast, satisfies on all levels. You don’t need million-dollar sets, you don’t need flashy costumes, you don’t need eye-boggling special effects. What you need are actors who create characters who draw you into their world and make you care. And, at least for one audience member, make you cry.

The Outgoing Tide runs through March 20. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or online at   

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