‘Fern Hill’ Starring John Glover, Jill Eikenberry and Mark Linn-Baker at 59E59 Theaters, a Sharp, Non-formulaic Comedic Drama About Friendship
Fern Hill by Michael Tucker is about three couples in their golden years who hope to confront the next phase of their lives with joie de vivre and vibrance. The idea of spending one’s last years in the bucolic farmhouse haven, whose name is an allusion to the Dylan Thomas poem “Fern Hill,” where Thomas spent his childhood, is a pleasurable one for the characters. Directed by Nadia Tass, Tucker’s play offers the opportunity for superb actors to shine in a comedy-drama that is relentless, “in your face,” human and clever.
The award-winning cast (Mark Blum, Jill Eikenberry, John Glover, Mark-Linn-Baker, Jodi Long, Ellen Parker) whose combined credits in theater, film and television number over one hundred are simply divine. Throughout, they remain inspired to hit the emotional notes and spark the humor with resonating heat at every turn. The plot twists gyrate the play into increasingly subtle directions until the inevitable result concludes with realism and poignance. Tucker’s thematic points about love, aging, sex, friendship, alienation in marriage, intimacy and more settle well because of fine ensemble work and authentic, moment-to-moment performances.
Initially, the gathering of couples feels like a hippie reunion from the early 1970s. But we discover these individuals have advanced together in friendship and collegiality teaching at a university. Additionally, they have launched themselves in careers as professional artists (painters, writers, photographers and even a musician rocker in a band) who attempt to make a difference as they offer their talents to the world and each other for stimulation, fun and growth. These are the perfect friends to have. They share the same values and intelligence with high social IQs. Indeed, their interactions at “Sunny and Jer’s” farmhouse located upstate in Fern Hill are similar to those represented in Lawrence Kasdan’s film The Big Chill (1983). However, unlike the companions in the film who have not seen each other in five years, these couples frequently meet up and have long-lived friendships that have weathered storms.
Playwright Tucker through Tass’ amiable direction has weaved a happy tableau which we cannot conceive will ever end. And for precious moments the ensemble has made us feel so comfortable that we are happy to witness and be a part of their clan while they enjoy themselves riffing, joking, eating and drinking together. But as we are lulled into their “play,” reality hits with Vincent’s (John Glover) announcement about his hip-replacement. Though Vincent is older, the deterioration that comes with mortality has begun in earnest it seems.
And especially for the men, the creep of fear is plaguing each of them. In this pleasant farmhouse of joy, all does not really bode well. Despite the satisfaction of achieving successful careers, artistic purpose and comfortable lifestyles, the question looms: what remains next for Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) and Jer (Mark Blum), Billy (Mark Linn-Baker, who is a younger, lighter version of David Crosby of the band Crosby, Stills and Nash) and Michiko (Jodi Long), Darla (Ellen Parker) and Vincent (John Glover)? The answer is daunting. After all, “aging is not for sissies” (Bette Davis’ oft quoted comment).
Thinking outside the box during the last four months, these buddies have discussed the finest way to stave off the horror of aging, isolated, alone and desolate among strangers. Rather than be blind-sided by disease, loneliness and depression in the narrow construct of Assisted Living Centers and Nursing Homes, on this birthday celebration for Jer and Billy, they cement their agreement to live together as a commune at Fern Hill so that they can help each other as they transition into the next great adventure after retirement and moving toward their irrevocable sunset.
The playwright takes a while to set up this idyllic place with divine companions that we can visualize living together as an exceptional solution to the nation’s dire aging institutionalization foisted upon older citizens. So we don’t get why Jer attempts to end their discussion and close down a fabulous idea as a fantasy. Even his reasons appear lame: he doesn’t think they can live together; they will sabotage their closeness and loving relationships and end up without each other. When he becomes irate about it, we sense there are deeper reasons.
Tucker spins the plot twist abruptly in a few revelatory lines. Sunny shatters the peace, love and community of friends on this lovely evening with an explosion of truth. This truth threatens to nullify all their efforts at a togetherness that has encouraged power, integrity and strength. Deceitfulness like the worm of age leers at each of the characters so that they must check themselves and deal with this problem between Sunny and Jer which is also their problem.
It is fascinating to watch character responses. The wisdom and humor that emerges engages with honesty and love. And regardless of whether their camaraderie appears a bit fantastic or completely possible, Tucker has written a fine work that is grounded in logic and constructed brick by brick with solid characterizations. Finally, the actors’ portrayals are spot-on so that every segment of the journey that Sunny and Jer take to where they must go to resolve their relationship issues makes sense and seems right. Encouraged, we have followed them recognizing ourselves in their foibles and earthy humanity.
This is a terrific production made all the more exceptional by the performances and direction. Kudos to the creative team without which this ensemble piece would not have been neatly realized: Jessica Parks (scenic designer) Patricia E. Doherty (costume design) Kate MGee (lighting designer) Kenneth Goodwin (sound designer).
Fern Hill is currently running at 59E59 Theaters (59E59th Street between Madison and Lexington) with one intermission until 20 October. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.