Aren’t the elderly hilarious? American media thinks so. Time and time again, they are portrayed as feeble, frail, cantankerous, incontinent, confused, faculty challenged or a combination of the like.
Michael Tucker has risen high above these stereotypes with his new comedy Fern Hill, now enjoying a world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch. The actor, best known for his long running tv series L.A. Law, has turned his attention to playwriting in recent years. Wise choice.
Under Nadia Tass‘ gentle direction, Tucker has delivered a hearty dose of humanity that is every bit as delicious as the clam sauce recipe his character Billy (Tom McGowan) amusingly describes near the top of the show.
Billy’s jovial jabs at Jer’s (David Rasche) cooking is one of the many ways in which Tucker develops his richly layered ensemble. Billy and his wife Michiko (Jodi Long), Jer and his wife Sunny (Jill Eikenberry), Darla (Dee Hoty) and her husband Vincent (John Glover) have all converged at Fern Hill, the name of Sunny and Jer’s beautiful farmhouse (a set so nicely designed by Jessica Parks that you may want to take up residency.) It is clear that this pack has been through thick and thin but the bonds of their friendship remains iron tough.
Now in their senior years, Sunny proposes a toast, suggesting that they all live together and care for one another as they grow older. Darla shirks a bit, claiming that the sixties are over and that living in a commune like hippies isn’t her vision of a utopia. Soon however, she adopts the idea. Jer on the other hand isn’t so certain. In time we learn why.
Tucker’s idea for the work was loosely based on his own long-term friendships with two couples. He and his wife Eikenberry have a house in Umbria, Italy. After a night of grappa with his group, inspiration struck. It’s an idea that could potentially be pitched to television producers for a heartwarming sitcom. Like the groundbreaking series, The Golden Girls, this paints seniors in a positive light by tackling real issues and discussing tough topics that are frequently repressed even by those closest to us.
I could have spent more time with the company of Fern Hill. Every player in this top notch cast–most of whom are Broadway vets–are bringing their “A game” to the stage. Their chemistry is so palpable it’s hard to believe that they haven’t been life long friends off stage. Tucker’s sensitive writing is clearly reflective of his enduring marriage. He and Eikenberry have been together for nearly 50 years. For them, listening and learning seem to be innate skills that translate well to their stagework.
By 2050,almost 20 percent of our population will be 65 or older. We’re living longer but with healthcare in disarray, pensions dissolving, social security threatened and a general societal disregard for the infirm, the outlook for a comfortable lot is grim. Tucker’s idea is a mighty fine one that brings hope and comfort. Like The Beatles, he’s acutely aware that we’ll age. But as the mop tops assured baby boomers, “We’ll Get by with a Little Help from Our Friends.” Let’s all toast to that.
Fern Hill 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.