Playwright Bruce Graham drew from personal experience when he wrote The Outgoing Tide, a tale of regrets and resolution between an elderly couple and their adult son.
The narrative — which won Chicago’s prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award when it premiered in 2011 — concerns a trio from one of Philadelphia’s blue-collar neighborhoods. They face a mixed bag of anger and other emotions, of thoughts and feelings repressed for too long finally coming out in difficult ways.
But a thread of humor infuses the family drama, if only to diffuse the tension with empathy and understanding. It’s a thread that In Tandem Theatre’s upcoming production of Graham’s work follows faithfully, says company artistic director Chris Flieller.
“Bruce has a great ear for dialog and character and a great mind for structure,” says Flieller, who is directing the show. “He also has an uncanny knack for wringing humor out of the most serious situations.”
The narrative involves an elderly couple, Gunner (James Pickering) and Peg (Susan Sweeney) Concannon, who meet with their son Jack (Simon Provan) at their summer cottage on Chesapeake Bay. Gunner has plans to secure the family’s financial future, but Peg and Jack have plans of their own. The three must resolve their issues before winter comes and the tide, both literal and metaphoric, goes out.
“Many of my generation are going through dealing with elderly parents and their changing needs,” Flieller says. “The son in this play has a lot to process in a very short time, not the least of which is his father’s diminished capacity.”
Graham, a native of South Philly’s working-class Irish enclave, pulled no punches during a recent discussion of The Outgoing Tide from his home on the Chesapeake Bay, which he described as the “set” for his play. The result is a fascinating look inside his characters, their lives and his own creative process.
Wisconsin Gazette: Given its title and elderly cast, it sounds like The Outgoing Tide may be about decline and, ultimately, death. Is there something more at work here?
Bruce Graham: Wow! That description’s not going to sell many tickets: “Let’s go see that play with old people about death.”
Impending death may be the “engine” behind the story, but to me it’s always been about regret. Looking back and wishing you could have done things a little differently. I think anybody who’s ever been married and had kids can relate to this.
Also, it’s pretty funny.
Tell me about those regrets.
Gunner regrets shaming Jack out of what he really wanted to do, which was to be a chef. Peg’s dream of being a teacher — of rising, perhaps, out of her neighborhood — is derailed. And Jack’s dream of owning a restaurant has been crushed but, by the ending, may have a chance.
Peg and Gunner deal with their regrets in a way common to blue-collar folks, at the least the ones I grew up with. Peg swallows and accepts it. She doesn’t bitch and complain, she deals with it. And Gunner, who is no good at emotional support, tries to make up for it by leaving Jack enough cash to realize his dream.
Is the narrative based on personal experience?
I have no imagination. Everything I’ve ever written has some autobiographical element to it. Anyone with older parents, including me, has dealt with a lot of the things in the play.
What brought this play about?
I had the idea for the play and was making notes on it when B.J. Jones, artistic director at Northlight Theatre (in Chicago), called asking if I had a play for John Mahoney. I told him I had a great story and was going to write it over the summer. He said, “Write it now,” so I did.
It’s ironic that we’re discussing this since John, sadly, passed away just two days ago.
End-of-life discussions inevitably involve dealing with past personal baggage. Are there unresolved issues between Jack and his parents?
The moment in the play that always gets me is when Gunner talks about giving Jack money, saying, “Maybe it’ll make up for some stuff.” It’s Gunner’s way of trying to resolve things in the relationship and I think Jack realizes it.
Jack also begins to understand some things when he catches himself sounding like his father in regards to his own son. People like Gunner aren’t in touch with their feelings. He’s trying to resolve the issue and to me that’s almost as good as resolving it.
Are the characters able to make emotional ends meet?
To me the best plays are the ones where you wonder what happened to the characters the next day. I honestly don’t know what happens, but I like to think Jack has learned a few things to help with his own family issues.
All people — and all characters — have some level of nobility, or maybe humanity is a better word, that deserves acknowledgement and respect. How does this apply to the Concannons?
I like the use of the word “nobility.” For years my plays have gotten snubbed because I write about blue-collar characters just trying to get through the day. I think there is a certain nobility in trying to raise a family and pay the bills.
The Concannons are flawed, which doesn’t make them unique, but does make them human. Plays have to have conflict, so I’ve put them into a stressful situation and I think their humanity comes out in how they react to the conflict.
Gunner and Peg have strong agendas and poor Jack is caught in the middle. Per Aristotle’s rules, all the characters are a little different at the end of the play.
Any lessons to be learned from The Outgoing Tide?
God, don’t say “lessons.” I hate plays with lessons.
I’m an entertainer, a song and dance man who can’t sing or dance. My job is to take the audience into another world for a while and, hopefully, create characters they care about and with whom they want to go on the journey. Any lessons they may take with them are really on their terms. And there’s no extra charge.
Pretty shallow answer, huh?