If you run a theater whose very existence hangs on the support of a older-skewing subscriber audience, do you really want to sock them with a show about an Alzheimer’s victim who begs his family’s approval to kill himself? “The Outgoing Tide,” a morbid little piece by Bruce Graham, apparently did okay for Chicago’s Northlight Theater and for the Delaware Theater Company, which brought it into Gotham. But the scribe’s obvious if earnest treatment of this touchy subject won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Helmer Bud Martin, the new exec director of the Delaware Theater Company, doesn’t do much for the material by attacking it with blunt force and then handing it over to the actors to do what they will. Seasoned TV stars Peter Strauss and Michael Learned hardly seem acquainted, let alone married, as an Irish Catholic couple with quite different views on how to deal with the creeping curse of Alzheimer’s.
Peg (Learned, looking pained) initially puts up a fight but soon throws up her hands in despair when her husband, who is still in the early stages of the disease, gruffly resists all her loving and practical suggestions of assisted living arrangements, home nursing and the like. It’s a purely reactive role, so there’s not a lot she can do with it.
As her bad-tempered husband, Gunner, Strauss seems determined to bring out the worst of an abrasive character. After indulging all his petulant tirades, Strauss has some nice moments at the end of the play when Gunner makes an honest attempt to reach out for forgiveness. But once a shouter, always a shouter, even in moments of keen regret.
Graham fumbles his chance to warm up his characters and soften their relationships by making a stiff out of son Jack (Ian Lithgow), who claims to want to get through to his father but hardly exerts himself. To be sure, the self-centered Gunner isn’t exactly a great communicator, but Jack barely responds to his father’s fumbling efforts to make peace. And while Lithgow (“Secret Order”) doesn’t do the character any favors by making him so emotionally detached, inspiration does have its limits.
So, for that matter, does the patience of an audience.