In “Fern Hill,” the second play he’s written, veteran actor Michael Tucker comes up with a promising idea. And then, strangely, he abandons it, and “Fern Hill” — now being presented at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch — turns into something else.
Let me explain.
In the first act, three couples who are old friends — Sunny (Tucker’s wife Jill Eikenberry) and Jer (David Rasche), Darla (Dee Hoty) and Vincent (John Glover), and Billy (Tom McGowan) and Michiko (Jodi Long) — have gathered at Sunny and Jer’s upstate New York farmhouse. They’re all artists or academics and get together frequently like this, we’re told. This time, they are celebrating the birthdays of Vincent (turning 80), Jer (turning 70) and Billy (turning 60).
Amid the casual conversation and good-natured bantering, Sunny comes up with an interesting idea: Why don’t they all move in together, so they could take advantage of each other’s support and companionship as they grow older? It would be like a geriatric hippie commune, or, as Michiko enthusiastically puts it, “a 24-7 pajama party.”
Jer, the grumpiest of the six, is resistant, though, so everyone drops the idea. Tucker drops it, too, and when one character abruptly brings up a different topic — a suspected affair one of the six is having — the play shifts. The commune never commences and we get, in the second act, basically an extended group therapy session, where the six, each drawing from his or her own history — and not shying away from discussing sexual matters in intimate detail — try to help mend the marriage that is in danger of ending. And “Fern Hill,” instead of becoming something novel, treads ground that has been covered in many previous plays.
The dialogue that Tucker gives his characters is quite eloquent, and though the insights aren’t exactly groundbreaking (news flash: communication is important), it is moving to listen to these characters talk about their challenges and eureka moments.
Still, Tucker — who also premiered his first work as a playwright, “The M Spot,” at New Jersey Repertory Company, in 2015 — makes some other puzzling choices as a writer, besides abandoning the commune idea.
What’s the point of setting the play in a farmhouse and then having nothing the characters do reflect that? If it weren’t for Jessica Parks’ appropriately rustic set, we might forget that the gathering is taking place in the country, and just assume it’s in the suburbs or the city.
While Tucker’s three men come across as distinct characters, his three women seem like variations on the same character, in terms of demeanor, personality and so on.
My final problem with the play — and, admittedly, this may be more a matter of personal taste than anything else — is that the characters seem so self-absorbed. They all seem comfortable, monetarily. They don’t worry about their parents, or their children, or the state of the world. They’re all sensationally talented, and others recognize their talent. As late in life as they may be, they all have strong libidos and, with the exception of the hip-replacement surgery that Vincent has to have, no major health problems.
It’s not necessarily a problem for a play to focus on the fortunate. But Tucker gives them little to do beyond sitting around and talking about themselves.
One notable exception is when Billy, a professional musician, talks about cooking. And we see, clearly, the rapturous joy he takes in the creative process, and mastery of technique. He, and the play, come alive; it’s a revelatory moment in a play that could use a few more of them.
“Fern Hill” is at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Sept. 9. Visit njrep.org.