Michael Tucker’s Fern Hill, now playing at 59E59, was first developed at the 2017 Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwright’s Conference and then received its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company. Aptly staged by Nadia Tass, who also directed the New Jersey Rep production, the play has been touted for its frankness in dealing with the issues of aging Boomers – fears of dying, of losing sexual vitality, of diminishing creativity, of waning love. With such promise, there is great anticipation that Fern Hill will delight the hungry theater palates of the oh-so-many theater goers in their “golden years.”
Three older couples, friends for decades, meet in a done-up farmhouse to ostensibly celebrate a birthday and only incidentally to discuss the prospect of living out their declining years together at Fern Hill. All three couples have been successful in the arts, so economics is not a problem. All three are relatively healthy, so health is not a problem yet. (Well, the 80 year-old (eternally likeable John Glover) needs a hip replacement, and as most of the audience knows, one can eventually recover and thrive without too much complication.) All characters agree they can live together in this communal arcadia except one, and upon this one killjoy all conflict will eventually descend, but softly.
Most of the first act plods along, introducing all the artsy characters: Sunny (Jill Eikenberry), the painter, married to Jer (Mark Blum), the writer and professor – yes, I know, but there is no connection here, metaphoric or otherwise, to Sonny and Cher; Vincent (John Glover), the successful painter, happily married to Darla (Ellen Parker), the photographer; and Billy (Mark Linn-Baker), the rock musician, contently married for the second time to the younger Michiko (Jodi Long), the arts department administrator at a local college. There is an entertaining amount of era-specific references, music, and jovial reminiscing, but little or no tension in the first act, except for the non-threatening struggle between Billy and Jer as to whose clam sauce is better. Linn-Baker’s near-operatic rendition of his linguini and clam sauce recipe is the outstanding event of that act, even though the only dramatic revelation of infidelity also occurs. This may threaten the dream of a commune at Fern Hill. Or will it? And finally after an hour of quips, the problem central to the play erupts more with a whimper than a bang.
The second act indulges in the various characters dealing with sex and marriage and more specifically, how to cope with and resolve past indiscretions. Propelled by the revelation of infidelity at the end of the first act, this act moves more glibly to a comfortable resolution. Tucker’s message about the sustainability of marriage is to forgive and soon to just forget, because as we age we won’t remember much of the past anyway. The message is in the sauce. Billy whips up the moral as he restates the secret of his sauce and its ingredients (those past sexual indiscretions). “So they disappear into the sauce – like they never existed and yet they do?”
The cast is so well-seasoned and star-studded and perfectly capable of the challenge. They are wonderfully resourceful with the occasional overemphasis to compensate Tucker’s underdeveloped text. The fault in these stars is not that the play is underwhelming but in the script, whose much-anticipated premise is so tempting. Sadly, the resolution disappoints by its blandness.