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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
FERN HILL
at 59E59 Theaters

LIVING ARRANGEMENTS
By BRIAN SCOTT LIPTON

  Ph: Carol Rosegg

The stereo selections change frequently during Michael Tucker’s Fern Hill, now at 59E9 Theaters, but the songs we keep half-expecting to hear – Bette Midler’s “Friends” or the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” – never play, as if everyone involved realized wisely that the underlying message of Tucker’s sincere, well-intentioned and ultimately moving new play hardly needs such obvious underscoring.

The two-act work is initially set during a weekend visit at Fern Hill, the exquisitely decorated country home (stunningly designed by Jessica Parks) of the long-married Jer (Mark Blum), an academic and author, and Sunny (Jill Eikenberry, Tucker’s real-life spouse), a teacher and aspiring artist. Their guests – who are more like family – are two other couples: Billy (Mark-Linn Baker), a rock star with an outsized fondness for booze, weed and his own cooking, who is about to turn 60 and still spends much of his life on the road, and his patient, good-natured wife Michiko (Jodi Long); and Vincent (John Glover), a more celebrated painter on the cusp of 80, and his somewhat younger wife Darla (Ellen Parker), a teacher and successful photographer about to have a major solo show in Vienna.

The sextet’s camaraderie and comfort with each other are so palpable that it makes perfect sense that they’re all considering living communally at Fern Hill – all except the rather obstinate Jer, who seems more than reluctant to give up his privacy. He’s not persuaded that the pluses of this plan outweigh the minuses, no matter how often Sunny and the group stress that in their aging years it will be beneficial to have each other to talk with, take care of each other and help them feel less alone. One admires Tucker’s willingness to tackle such an of-the-moment issue, and one also senses how much these arguments resonate with much of the older audience at 59E59.

But soon enough, for better and worse, Tucker soon reveals why Sunny, of all people, appears to be the strongest advocate for this new living arrangement. She suspects that Jer is having an affair (he is), and she’s strongly considering making him move out. She clearly doesn’t want to start over, romantically. She’d rather just be surrounded by those she loves platonically.

The second act then becomes an exploration of what sex and intimacy really mean to all of these couples, as a mini-intervention is staged to try to get the bull-headed Jer to share his feelings and listen to Sunny. But here, far more than in the piece’s earlier sections, Tucker’s dialogue feels a bit forced at times, and it almost seems surprising that the couple’s past sexual exploits and difficulties have never been discussed (especially among the men) in the previous years.

Fortunately, even the play’s weaker sections are redeemed by the sterling performances of this expert cast, guided by director Nadia Tass. Blum, saddled with the most unlikeable role, never begs for sympathy, just a little understanding of his inner complexities – even though Tucker stacks the deck against him. Eikenberry underplays her part nicely so that her final explosion has the impact of a sudden bomb drop. Linn-Baker (costumed by Patricia Doherty to resemble David Crosby) is alternately hilarious and touching. Long brings a well-tempered mixture of humor and sadness to Michiko (the most underwritten role). Parker is the essence of practicality. And Glover, as might be expected, knows precisely how to create a full-bodied character in just a few brushstrokes and comes up with pitch-perfect line readings or inventive bits of stage business.

True, the play can feel like a bit of a slog during its more expositional moments, even with its tidy two-hour running time, but in the end, it’s a “Hill” most patrons will feel is worth climbing.

 


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