A man, who spent his working life negotiating with Teamsters, presents an audacious proposal to his wife and son to end his life on his own terms before dementia removes his voice from the bargaining table. The North Coast Rep production of “The Outgoing Tide” succeeds masterfully in acknowledging issues none of us want to discuss yet urgently need to address for ourselves and our loved ones.
We meet Gunner (Andrew Barnicle, in an unforgettable performance) living the good life as a retiree sitting in a beach chair on the Chesapeake shore, fishing pole and a cold brew at the ready. He’s shooting the breeze with Jack (Leo Marks) in one of those wide-ranging, story-of-your-life conversations you’d have with a stranger on an airplane. Gunner does most of the talking; Jack remains subdued. In laugh-out-loud dialog – that’s a cross between Neil Simon and Norman Lear – there appears to be little commonality between the men. This becomes heart-wrenching when it is revealed by wife Peg (Linda Gehringer) that Gunner has been talking all this time to his son.
But don’t write Gunner off just yet. During his lucid moments, he is persuasive and has thought of everything in his exit plan, including an insurance policy that will pay double for “accidental death.” All of this is a hard sell for Peg, a devout Catholic, who has sacrificed so much in her 50-year marriage. Jack, on the other hand, is already pondering ways to use the windfall.
In this story about illness, death and personal choice, the take-home message is communication, or the lack thereof, as is the case with this family where far too many sentences contain the phrase: “Don’t tell your father” / “Don’t tell your mother.”
Under the assured direction of Nike Doukas, poignant performances by Barnicle and Gehringer keep the story real and build tension without succumbing to melodrama or sentimentality.
You can practically smell the ocean air in the set design by Marty Burnett with props by Phillip Korth: Overturned rowboat drying in the late afternoon sun, a row of smooth beach rocks lined up against an exterior wall of weather-beaten shingles, tuffs of grasses and weeds opportunistically growing between wooden steps.
Lighting design by Matt Novotny sets the mood of autumn by the shore as undulating light simulating water reflections dances like animated wallpaper on an exterior wall. Subtle shifts in lighting are used to good advantage in facilitating transitions to flashback scenes during which we learn of teenage Peg’s crushing disappointment to forego a college when she finds herself pregnant and unwed. We ache with the reveal that Jack has always been a disappointment to his father, never measuring up to real and imaged inadequacies in childhood sports, masculinity and ambition. And Gunner is haunted by witnessing the ravages of disease suffered by his best friend whose death represents everything Gunner is determined to avoid.
These previously unexamined experiences inform, in both subtle and profound ways, how the story ultimately plays out. There’s no easy choice but one thing is certain: Whether the decision made is to prolong Gunner’s life at all costs or to let him go, it will leave a long-lasting ripple effect not unlike skipping a stone across the water lapping against the shore.
by Lynne Friedmann