NEW YORK (AP) — In art as well as in life, watching someone lose their mind is an excruciating thing — even more so when that person is still physically vigorous, full of verve, full of humor. One can think only about what might have been.
So one might approach a play about Alzheimer’s disease with trepidation — how can it be anything other than crushingly depressing? The marvel of Bruce Graham’s “The Outgoing Tide,” a simple and beautiful play brought to life by a superb cast and directed with a firm hand by Bud Martin, is that it makes us smile, chuckle, even laugh out loud while still absorbing the full tragedy and inevitability of this disease.
It’s worth noting that nowhere in “The Outgoing Tide,” a Delaware Theatre Company production that opened Tuesday at the 59E59 Theaters in New York, is the word “Alzheimer’s” mentioned.
That doesn’t matter. It’s clear from the start, in an opening scene that begins unremarkably and quickly becomes shocking, that the gritty Gunner, a man in his 70s with the vigor and gumption of a younger man, is losing his mind.
Imbued with gusto, humor and heart by Peter Strauss, Gunner is a man trying to take control just as he’s losing it. And so he’s invited his adult son, Jack (sensitively portrayed by Ian Lithgow, son of John) to his Chesapeake Bay cottage, where he lives with his wife, Peg. The family must be together because Dad has a plan. You could call it a crazy plan. He would call it the sanest plan he ever came up with.
Peg, in a wonderfully natural performance by Michael Learned of “The Waltons” fame, is a survivor. She’s the one who’s been keeping their lives as normal as possible, gently pointing out to her husband that the reason he can’t get “Cops” on the darned TV is because it’s not the TV, it’s the microwave. And Peg has a plan too. She wants to get Gunner into an assisted living home before it’s too late.
Gunner has a different idea. It’s tough to describe his plan without giving away too much of the plot. But it’s heartbreaking to watch as Gunner marshals his last moments of lucidity in a furious effort to make amends for past mistakes and finally take care, now and forever, of those he loves.
And while he’s at it, he makes us wish we’d known him before. Even in the face of misery, Gunner has quite a way with a one-liner. “Are you out of your mind?” his wife asks during a dispute over how much he paid for a bottle of booze. “Not at the moment,” he replies. “Stick around, ya never know.”
Or listen to him on the subject of suicide. Peg: “Suicide is a mortal sin!” Gunner: “So is molesting kids — I’ll be surrounded by priests.”
Even Peg, whose steely matter-of-factness thinly veils both a fierce love for her husband and a fierce sense of duty, can lapse into black humor. She quips that Gunner once suggested a murder-suicide pact, but she said no thanks: “Knowing him, he’d shoot me and then forget to shoot himself.”
These moments, like that expensive booze that Gunner gulps down, help ease the pain. So do the flashbacks to less complicated times, like when Gunner first met and married Peg.
But Gunner doesn’t need flashbacks to remember his love for his wife. When she asks him, at one point, who she is — she wants to be sure he’s focused — he responds with a perfect, detail-rich description of not only who she is but how they met and what she was wearing and how beautiful she was.
At such moments, big feelings seem to emanate from the theater’s tiny stage: Big pain. Big loss. Big love. Big heart.