So many stories told on the stage are about the tribulations of the young. That’s nice – it shows how alive theater is for up-and-coming generations of creators. But it’s arguably nicer to see a play about older people, and still nicer when not one of them suffers from plot-spawning dementia. Michael Tucker’s Fern Hill, now at 59e59 Theaters, does include one hip replacement. But its six characters, who range from middle-age to almost 80 (and are all heterosexual – unusual these days!), are an honestly and refreshingly lively bunch.
This serious comedy is brought to you by a cast of superb veterans of Broadway and Off-Broadway (and of course TV) and directed cogently by Nadia Tass. Three couples have gathered for a birthday celebration at the retired farmhouse where Jer (a volcanic Mark Blum) and Sunny (Tucker’s ever-sharp wife Jill Eikenberry, as fans of L.A. Law will remember) live what seems a fairly groovy life. Nearing 70, Jer is a teacher and writer, Sunny ruling her roost as a struggling painter. Jessica Parks’ beautiful set represents their kitchen, dining room, and a small den in beautiful detail.
Sixty-ish Billy (charmingly hyperactive as portrayed by Mark Linn-Baker) is a rocker with a psychedelic dinosaur band that still tours, though with ever-lower billing, and a younger, cucumber-cool Japanese-American wife (Jodi Long). Vincent (John Glover) of the sore hip is a celebrated abstract painter whose work hangs in major galleries and above Jer and Sunny’s dual refrigerators (one fridge modern, the other trendily old and charming). His wife Darla (a smooth, quietly poignant Ellen Parker) is an academically and artistically recognized art photographer.
I mention these vocations not because they’re integral to the plot – they’re not, in any deep sense – but because the characters are all so successful at their chosen passions that it’s actually annoying. Billy has plenty of fans (though they’re aging), Vincent is a famous artist, Darla is about to have a solo show at a prestigious gallery in Vienna, Jer is a published author stressing over having finished a book. This is a minor ding in an appealing story, but one does long for some of the practical real-life struggles that real people go through. Billy and Michiko are running into financial problems, but even they have a New York City apartment they can sell and be set for a long time.
And that brings us to this tale’s twist: These six old friends have been talking about forming a kind of commune, all moving in with Jer and Sunny on their spacious farm property. Is this idea a hopeless ’60s holdover? Or is it a creative solution for older people who don’t want to rely on strangers, or their children, when they need care? Most important: Can it work?
In this thoughtful play, the questions are more important than any answers. And despite their success, the characters’ crises are real enough – failing health, fading careers, conflicting visions of the future. When an infidelity comes to light, the communal spirit among these mild eccentrics is upended. They’re (mostly) so likable that it’s easy to sympathize even with the guilty party, actions and general insensitivity aside. So what if their collective careers are a little too good to be true? The petty human troubles that afflict them feel as painfully real as anything in our own lives.
And yet, happily, they don’t embody the stereotypes of aging people. They have plenty of sex (for better and worse) and at least some of them aren’t afraid to talk about it. There’s a general lust for life among this cohort: Billy’s sensuous verbal painting of a recipe; Vincent’s good spirits through his physical pain; the strength of a marriage that allows Darla to plausibly follow her dreams to a foreign country for weeks even as her husband convalesces. At the core of it all is Sunny’s pursuit of her art, and treasuring of her friendships, even as life’s unfairness is tearing her apart. It all leaves one with a genuine hope for human nature’s better angels.
The play has flaws. The first act is somewhat unfocused compared with the tense and sharply honed second. More trivially, some time-period clues seem contradictory – I was surprised when one character pulled out a smartphone in Act II. But as a whole, the production easily won me over with its strikingly drawn and played characters, mostly smooth pacing, fabulous set, and, not least, overall positivity. That last is rare one on the stage. Climb Fern Hill through Oct. 20, 2019 at 59e59 Theaters.