Aging Baby Boomers Experiment With Communal Living in Fern Hill
Three couples navigate their golden years under one roof.
The first scene of Michael Tucker's Fern Hill contains a protracted explanation of how to prepare the best spaghetti with clam sauce: "You ladle some pasta water into the slurry — turn the heat all the way up — and then toss in the half-done pasta," explains Billy, the chef among a group of friends gathered at a farmhouse to celebrate the 70th birthday of their friend Jer. Directing his instructions to the birthday boy himself, he continues,
Each strand — each individual spaghetto — sucks up into itself the essence of the garlic, the onion, the bacon, the wine, the butter and the juice from the just-opened clams. That's all in the spaghetti — not on the spaghetti — and that's the difference between your sauce and mine — and — frankly — sadly — the difference between me and you."
It's a tortured metaphor, priming our palates for two hours of obtuse domestic drama in this New York debut at 59E59 Theaters. We wonder if such kitchen counter wisdom will feature in the coming years: Billy (Mark Linn-Baker) and his wife, Michiko (Jodi Long), plan on moving into the farmhouse, currently owned by Jer (Mark Blum) and his wife, Sunny (Jill Eikenberry). Their artist friends Vincent (John Glover) and Darla (Ellen Parker), who are also married, will take up residence in the barn.
It's all part of a novel scheme to ward off the retirement home by preemptively forming a commune, the likes of which Billy, an old hippie with a Grateful Dead-like band, inhabited in his youth. But will these pampered boomers be able to return to their youthful idealism after spending decades sucking up the juices of a triumphant nation, like so much wet spaghetti?
There are big ideas bubbling in the slurry of Fern Hill, specifically about the mythology that necessarily undergirds any long-term relationship. Unfortunately, much of Tucker's runny script revolves around the sexual infidelity of one of the incipient communards, an incident that inexplicably threatens the future of this intimate retirement community for the free-love generation.
The married couple at the heart of the scandal shouts it out in the kitchen, eventually calling their friends in for a group therapy session. Constitutionally, these characters are the opposite of the icy Brits in Betrayal, yet they are no less boring for it. This September, the New York theater scene has proved that other people's clichéd affairs are just not that interesting a subject matter for the stage.
Fine performances from several of the actors (Glover as a romantic elder statesman, Long as a mischievous observer of all) cannot mitigate that fact; and less fine performances (Blum as a wet blanket, Parker practically comatose) do little to make things worse. Tucker relies on our emotional investment in these characters (half of whom seem to be tenured academics at an exclusive college in the Northeast) to keep us engaged in the soggy plot — but it's hard to truly care about any of them.
Director Nadia Tass keeps Tucker's contrivances moving at a steady pace, even if her staging isn't particularly original: Actors file out in a clump when Tucker requires a scene between two specific characters, and then return en masse when we're ready for a group scene again. Tass at least offers staging during the painfully extended transitions, which sound designer Kenneth Goodwin underscores with tasteful jazz.
Jessica Parks's set is the star of the production: a handsome kitchen-cum-dining room featuring a mishmash of old and new appliances. Vincent's colorful paintings decorate the walls, giving us a sense of his genuine talent. Patricia Doherty's costumes also convey the personalities of their wearers (an audaciously patterned shirt for Billy, a dull blue one for Jer). Both elements feel like they belong in a better play than Fern Hill.
Only Kate McGee's lighting betrays the laboriousness of the script: McGee concludes the first act with a clunker of a fade-out that leaves the audience hesitantly clapping, wondering if they can escape to the bathroom. The second act ends with spotlights on the faces of the married couple in the central conflict as they stare at each another from across the darkness, just in case we've forgotten about the plot completely.
By that point, many in the audience will have moved on to daydreaming about their own relationships, and what the future holds for them as they move into old age. If Fern Hill is good for anything, it is as a prompt for those important considerations.