A poignant play about illness, death and personal choice, “The Outgoing Tide” is nothing if not intensely relatable. But while speaking to a broad audience, Bruce Graham’s three-person play premiering at the Northlight Theater outside Chicago simultaneously possesses a notable modesty. Under BJ Jones’ direction, and boasting performances of aching restraint from John Mahoney and Rondi Reed, “The Outgoing Tide” eschews the overwrought for the potently somber.
Set at a coastal home on the Chesapeake, the play begins with a scene between retired teamster Gunner (Mahoney) and a younger man (Thomas J. Cox) who appears to be a new arrival in the area, primed for Gunner’s advice about the pros and cons of the neighborhood. Gunner’s wife Peg (Reed) appears on the patio and listens for a while, until she can no longer take it, informing Gunner — with a touch of impatience she wishes weren’t so apparent — that he’s actually speaking not with a stranger but with his son Jack.
With great efficiency, Graham sets up the situation. Gunner’s Alzheimer’s is advancing, which means he feels constantly humiliated — he appears in one scene without his pants, and Mahoney expertly expresses the self-loathing in his moment of realization. Peg can no longer keep her eye on him; she has taken to locking the gates at night so he won’t wander out, but there’s the scary fact that he recently put his newspapers directly on a burning stove. Peg and Jack both agree he should go into a home, but Gunner, having visited the place and seen the state of other residents, refuses.
In the second act, a plot most akin to Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery” combines with Marsha Norman’s “‘Night Mother.” Gunner has set in motion a plan to take care of his family and to resolve his suffering. He saw a close friend deteriorate and insists it won’t happen to him.
The play has graceful qualities but also some clunky ones. Graham includes flashbacks to the early points in Gunner and Peg’s relationship, and to Jack’s childhood, in order to detail some emotional baggage that needs unpacking. A little more problematically, there’s a scene where Gunner mistakes Jack for his old friend, and thus neatly resolves said baggage a bit too sweetly for a play that is otherwise so clear-headed.
While there could be greater complexity and more specificity in the disease and other options, Graham smartly just sticks to the straightforward, keeping the play well under two hours and investing his characters with enough of a sense of humor for the show never, ever to become morose.
And the performances are similarly focused and restrained. Mahoney is terrific as a guy who has done enough to alienate his family over the years and therefore appreciates their love all the more. As the only child, who now has a not-so-likable child of his own, Cox captures the fundamental befuddlement of being caught between the opinions of his parents.
But, ultimately, it’s Reed who delivers the most meaningful turn. Catholic and old-fashioned but not rigid, Reed’s Peg has to confront whether what she wants to happen is about some abstract belief system, about what’s genuinely best for Gunner, or about her fear of being alone.
This is a quiet play written in simple strokes, but it’s also a dignified one, and it’s assured of a robust regional life.