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Off-Broadway Review: “Fern Hill” at 59E59 Theaters (Through Sunday October 20, 2019)

Off-Broadway Review: “Fern Hill” at 59E59 Theaters (Through Sunday October 20, 2019)
Written by Michael Tucker
Directed by Nadia Tass
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Part group therapy, part intervention, part Doctors Phil and Ruth, “Fern Hill,” currently running at 59E59 Theaters through Sunday October 20, 2019, rehearses the events at Sunny’s (Jill Eikenberry) and Jer’s (Mark Blum) country farmhouse (Fern Hill) that take place with their close couple friends and frequent guests Vincent (John Glover) and Darla (Ellen Parker) and Billy (Mark Linn-Baker) and Michiko (Jodi Long). On this visit, the “gang” has gathered to celebrate Jer’s birthday, to finalize plans for the couples’ Commune Project, and an unexpected act of infidelity on the part of the “birthday boy.”

For over four months, the couples have been discussing moving in together at the farmhouse so they can support on another as they continue to advance in years – they range from 60 years old (Billy) to almost 80 years old (Vincent). Sunny affirms the need for the commune because, “no one left to take care of us but ourselves.” Darla concurs, “And watch out for each other and care for each other until the day we die.” Jer, however, is against the commune and prefers his privacy. He also prefers spending time with a young female student at the university where he teaches. With Jer’s infidelity taking precedence, the “rules” of the commune retreat into the background.

Act One ends with a protracted discussion between Sunny and Jer (the Sunny and Jer Show) about Jer’s infidelity, their relationship leading up to the infidelity, and a host of therapeutic talk-show-type couple therapy diagnoses about what’s missing in their relationship, what needs to be changed, and what the possibility of survival might be. The act ends with Darla deciding to attend her photography show in Austria with Michiko accompanying her, the discussion of Vincent’s upcoming hip surgery, and Sunny and Jer promising to pick him up from the hospital and caring for him until Darla returns home.

The Second Act picks up three weeks later after Vincent returns to Fern Hill and Darla and Michiko’s return to the commune. This act focuses on Sunny’s career and her relationship with Jer. Sunny must decide whether to ask Jer to leave or to attempt reconciliation, and the others struggle to determine how to keep their longtime friends together. Unfortunately, after Vincent’s earlier engaging conversation with Sunny about the difference between intimacy and sex and the importance of intimacy, the intervention collapses into a series of lackluster monologues about sex and fidelity and how these have played out in each of their relationships. Michael Tucker seems to have lost his way here, leaving the actors seemingly ill at ease as they struggle to suddenly have sex the focus of the piece, abandoning the concern for relationship and community extant in Act One. Act Two simply fails to deliver, particularly in the last couple of scenes.

The playwright seems to want to cover an extensive range of topics without focusing on one primary theme. Is the play about intimacy? About sex? About communal living and support? About rock bands and drugs? About infidelity? There are lengthy conversations about recipes, one for the clam sauce Billy acquired from an Italian grandmother “in a little trattoria on the shores of the Adriatic” during his band’s Farewell Tour Number Seven, and the other for Fra Diavlo. This, along with extensive sections of exposition about each character, add a significant amount of dialogue and time which seems unnecessary and not entirely relevant to the advancement of the plot. Act Two of “Fern Hill” is overlong and overwrought.

The playwright effortlessly introduces themes; however, he does not allow many of these themes to develop to the point of exposing the important underbelly of rich and enduring questions. Why do couples fail to or cease to “know” about one another? How does motivation effect levels of disclosure and transparency in intimate relationships? Who do individuals and couples ignore glaring signs of discord in the ability to relate honestly? Why do broken relationships often engender self-abuse? Does infidelity necessarily cause not hearing one’s spouse or considering one’s mate “incidental?” These are the questions one wishes Michael Tucker would parse, not Michiko’s “addiction to her computer, or Billy’s being “high all the time.”

That said, it was exhilarating to see this amazing cast assembled on one stage. Under Nadia Tass’s direction, each of these iconic actors delivered believable performances that authenticated their characters’ unique conflicts in ways that successfully advanced the play’s plot. One wishes for a more coherent story with a more cathartic and realistic ending. A story more fitting for the assembled “rock stars” of the theatre.

FERN HILL

The cast of “Fern Hill” features Mark Linn-Baker, Mark Blum, Jill Eikenberry, John Glover, Jodi Long, and Ellen Parker. Philip Hoffman and Pilar Witherspoon are the understudies.

The design team includes Jessica Parks (scenic design); Kate McGee (lighting design); Patricia Doherty (costume design); Kenneth Goodwin (sound design); and Addison Heeren (prop master). The Production Stage Manager is Stephanie Clark.

“Fern Hill” runs at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street) through Sunday, October 20 on the following performance schedule: Tuesday – Friday at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Single tickets are $25 - $70 ($49 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call the 59E59 Box Office at 646-892-7999 or visit www.59e59.org.

Photo (L-R): Mark Linn-Baker, John Glover, Mark Blum, Jill Eikenberry, Jodi Long, and Ellen Parker in Michael Tucker’s “Fern Hill at 59E59 Theaters. Credit: Carol Rosegg.
0 Comments | Add Comment | Permalink | Posted by David Roberts on Thursday, September 19, 2019