IN EIGHT YEARS of reviewing local theater at the Mercury, I've probably seen somewhere in the order of 54,634,959 plays. And I can say with certainty that during that time, I've never had as many conversations with strangers about a show as I did during intermission at CoHo's The Outgoing Tide.
Everyone wanted to talk about it: Whether Gunner, a self-sufficient manly-man type with early signs of Alzheimer's, should be allowed to end his own life, as he's determined to do. Whether his wife, Peg, who's spent her whole life as a full-time wife and mother, is being selfish in insisting they move to an assisted care facility. And whether their adult son, Jack, might be influenced in his own decision-making by the massive life insurance payoff coming his way after his dad's death.
The Outgoing Tide grapples squarely with the questions that every family faces at some point. And because playwright Bruce Graham is keenly aware that death is a downer, it does so with plenty of humor and an eye for the relatable aggravations of family life. (Gunner and Peg preface every confidence with "don't tell your mother" or "don't tell your father"; eventually the audience starts eye-rolling along with Jack.)
The three-person ensemble is perfectly pitched: As Gunner, Tobias Andersen is so genial and charismatic that his occasional lapses are that much tougher to watch; Jane Fellows as Peg, his long-suffering wife, is a perfect mother hen, overpraising her son's cooking and clucking over his personal life; and as Jack, Gary Norman is commendably restrained as a son struggling to set aside old resentments and cope with his father's decline. (Restraint here is crucial, on the part of both the cast and director Stephanie Mulligan; it's an emotional show that could easily feel treacly, but largly doesn't.)
There's a popular assumption that "theater is for old people," that it's an old-fashioned entertainment that doesn't resonate with kids and their Xbox Live accounts. The Outgoing Tide is specifically for old people—free tickets will be distributed to low-income seniors, and there are paintings in the lobby by Oregon artist Dick Akers, displayed in partnership with the Geezer Gallery. But there's nothing old-fashioned about this show, and the questions it presses upon its audience are universally relevant: Have you talked to your old person about end-of-life care? Do you think you should be able to decide for yourself when you don't want to live anymore? Would your family respect your wishes? It's heavy stuff, to be sure, but The Outgoing Tide is clear-eyed and funny, even as it tackles the biggest, toughest questions.