John Mahoney, Thomas J. Cox, and Rondi Reed
in The Outgoing Tide
(© Michael Brosilow)
John Mahoney, Thomas J. Cox, and Rondi Reed
in The Outgoing Tide
(© Michael Brosilow)
Bruce Graham's The Outgoing Tide, now recieving its world premiere at Chicago's Northlight Theatre, tackles difficult issues confronting more and more longer-living Americans.

Wisely, Graham frames the work in human terms rather than engaging in ethical or spiritual debate. And with two charismatic and masterful actors, John Mahoney and Rondi Reed, in the leading roles, it's not surprising the production is both thought-provoking and moving.

Gunnar (Mahoney) has Alzheimer's, although he's still fully functional, physically strong, and rational more often than not. A self-made man, he and his wife of 51 years, Peg (Reed), live in comfort on Chesapeake Bay.

Peg advocates moving to an apartment in a life care facility where she can care for Gunnar as long as possible and remain close by when he must enter the institutional advanced care wing. But Gunnar would quite literally rather die than linger until vegetable status, and his option to exit life on his own terms becomes the principal debate of the play.

Indeed, the work is not about the disease or its symptoms -- although symptoms are apparent in the play -- but about the very narrow range of choices available to those who have any degenerative disease.

Mahoney is at the top of his form here. He's older than in his heyday, but there's nothing fragile about him. The power of his voice and his remarkably flexible movements -- watch him mime a baseball game or do a little jig for joy -- contribute to an authoritative performance as this sympathetic although acerbic figure.

Reed plays the quiet yet fiercely-protective Peg to perfection. Her work is far more internalized, and she channels her emotions to a few heartbreaking outbursts near the end of the play. Meanwhile, Thomas J. Cox is stalwart as the couple's son, Jack - who is the least-developed character, coming off more as a sounding board for Gunnar and Peg rather than someone with plot-driven choices to make.

Director BJ Jones has staged the work with quiet force. Scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge provides the wide back wall and dock of Gunnar and Peg's cedar-shake house, suggesting size and luxury without filling in the details, and the neutral cyclorama in back of the house can be sea or sky or both as the observer chooses.

Given the play's pertinence and humanity, one can expect many future productions of The Outgoing Tide.