Italy. For centuries, this crown jewel of the Meditteranean has inspired great works of art that have reached celestial heights. For Da Vinci, it was–among other masterpieces–the Vitruvian Man. Michelangelo gave us David and the Sistine Chapel. Puccini filled our ears with lush scores of “La Boheme” and “Turandot.” More recently, this scenic country encouraged actor-turned-playwright Michael Tucker to draft his latest work, Fern Hill. The world premiere drama-comedy opens this Thursday at NJ Rep in Long Branch, New Jersey.
A recent press release describes the show as follows:
Three couples in their golden years are gathered at Sunny and Jer’s farmhouse to celebrate milestone birthdays that span three decades. The foundation of their long friendship is honesty and support – as well as a commitment to the enjoyment of food, wine, and laughter. They’re so close that Sunny suggests they all move in together – to live and work and assist one another as they grow older. Their companionship is put to the test, however, when a marital betrayal is discovered. The bonds of loyalty and truth are explored in this mature comedy.
Tucker, best known for his long-running stint on television’s L.A. Law recently spoke to Manhattan Digest at a press preview of the show. “The inspiration came on the occasion of my 70th birthday. Two other close friends of mine were turning 60 and 80 that year,” he explained. “We all have houses in Umbria, Italy and one night, with each of our wives, we went to a village party and knocked back some shots of grappa. The thought of us all living together and taking care of each other in one villa occurred to me and provided the basis for the play.” Tucker developed his play in 2017 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference. “This cast is beyond my wildest dreams,” Tucker said.
Of course, it helps that the woman of his dreams is in the cast. Jill Eikenberry, who shared the small screen with her husband in L.A. Law (earning five Emmy awards for her role as lawyer Ann Kelsey) was on hand to reflect her thoughts. “It’s so smart of Michael to be writing work like this,” she said. “As I get older, the parts become fewer and fewer.” Tucker and Eikenberry are somewhat of a unicorn in Hollywood, having been happily together for 47 years and married for 45 of them. Their secret to longevity? “If you can find someone who is game for your desires, and you’re game for theirs, you can have so much fun- and we do!” Tucker said. Eikenberry added, “We’ve allowed each other to change. That is too scary for some people because they want to hold on to that thing that brought them together, but we’ve allowed that change in one another.”
Tom McGowan, a familiar face from television’s Everybody Loves Raymond and Frasier, also stars. “The characters in Fern Hill are very well drawn, not just in their couples but each individual character. It really jumped off the page.” Although he hit the jackpot in two of tv’s most popular and enduring sitcoms, McGowan’s first love is the theatre. “Getting to rehearse for three and a half weeks and getting better and better with each try? There’s really nothing like it,” he said. “Plus, I grew up 15 miles from Long Branch, so my family and high school friends are going to come.”
Three-time Tony Award winner Dee Hoty is another starry name who will grace the NJ Rep Stage for Tucker’s play. Coincidentally, Hoty and McGowan were both nominated for Tonys in 1991 and would see each other at all of the press events. “We just really hit it off,” McGowan said. “She’s such a great, funny lady and we’ve run into each other from time to time but have never worked together. When I learned she would be in it, I was so excited.”
Hoty was cast in the show in a roundabout way. At the press preview, she explained, “I auditioned for a play that Nadia Tass (director of Fern Hill) was directing and I didn’t get it. But, she went home, called Michael, and said that she had found an actress for him for the show. I met him for a drink, and I got the job! So, you just never know.” Hoty said that she, “cut her teeth on Regional theater,” having received her Equity card at Cleveland Playhouse. The busy actress, last seen on Broadway in Bright Star, has some yet to be announced projects up her sleeve. For now though, is thrilled to be working among such a talented cast.
Other familiar faces of stage and screen including John Glover, Jodi Long, and David Rasche will round out this top-shelf cast.
Fern Hill begins previews on August 9th and opens August 11th. It runs through September 9th at New Jersey Repertory Company. 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740. For tickets and more information, visit Fern Hill Play.