NJ REP WELCOMES (NOT YET OVER THE ‘HILL’) PROS IN A FRIENDLY EXPERIMENT

LA LAW veterans Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry are the playwright and the co-star of FERN HILL, a world premiere play that brings a cast of familiar actors to New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photo courtesy of Alli Angelou/ NJ Rep

Published in the Asbury Park Press, August 10, 2018

It’s an idea that’s so “out there,” that it just might…actually, it’s a perfectly horrendous idea, were any of us to try it in real life. But of such cockamamie notions are the stuff of great “mature comedies” often made — and in Fern Hill, the Michael Tucker play that makes its world premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company this weekend, a seemingly well-thought out and well-intentioned arrangement creates a situation that tests some long-established bonds of friendship, faithfulness, and fidelity to the truth.

As put forth by Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) — a painter, art history professor and, with her marital partner Jer, co-owner of the farmhouse property from which the play takes its title — the plan is a beautifully simple one at heart. Sunny and Jer invite four of their close friends — two couples with whom they share a love of food, wine, and laughter — to move in with them at Fern Hill; the idea being that this close-knit community of contemporaries would share their lives, work together, and be there for each other as they collectively enter their senior years.

It’s “an alternative to being shipped off to live with strangers,” as Eikenberry describes it — but the question of whether this plan functions as it was intended is one that promises to be addressed in the six-character script (rebranded from its originally announced title of Assisted Living), which was workshopped at the 2017 Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference. This is the second mainstage project at NJ Rep for Eikenberry and Tucker — together known far and wide as The Tuckerberrys — following their 2015 turn in The M Spot, and while it stands as only the second full-length play by actor-author-novelist Tucker, it’s a continuation of a rich and multi-faceted collaboration for the partners in life and art.

Although the two have been married since 1973, it wasn’t until they both landed regular roles in Steven Bochco’s hit 1980s-90s TV series LA Law that they shared significant screen time, with Jill (as elegant legal eagle Ann Kelsey) and Michael (as somewhat nebbishy Stuart Markowitz) even connecting their characters as an unlikely twosome during the show’s run (indeed, who could forget the seductive secrets of “the Venus Butterfly?”).

Since then, the traveling Tuckerberrys have performed together in the occasional TV movie; lectured as motivational speakers; relocated back to the east coast; established a second home in the Italian countryside; started their own olive oil business; written songs; produced public TV documentaries; advocated for breast cancer awareness (via Jill’s publicly shared experiences) and compassionate elder care (via Michael’s 2009 book Family Meals); toured to promote Tucker’s several volumes of witty family memoirs — and continued to nurture new projects, even as Michael has largely stepped away from acting altogether (“I’m not in this one…and I didn’t even want to be in the last one!”).

“This is one of the best parts I’ve ever had…and at this time in my life, there’s not a whole lot for me out there,” says the 71 year old Eikenberry, recipient of an Obie award, a Golden Globe, and five Emmy nominations. “I love Michael’s writing, I love ensemble pieces…and I feel very smart to have gotten myself into this situation!”

“What happened with this play at the O’Neill was exciting, and Sunny has continued to evolve…Mike has really found the arc of her character; found her journey.”

“The people in this play have been a gang of six for years…they’re people who’ve had a splendid time together, and who wonder what life would be like if they really took care of each other,” says Tucker of his characters, most of whose lives and careers are centered around an academic setting. “They’re not wealthy people, but the idea is that if they pool what they have together…they’re rich!”

“Tons of people talk about moving in together, and lots of people have done it…but it’s different when you’re younger, and almost nobody does it after a certain age.”

How the various parties in the play’s little social experiment react forms the crux of Fern Hill, with Eikenberry noting that “some are excited about the idea, while others need convincing” — and Tucker hinting that the occupants of the house are divided among “those who aren’t willing to expose themselves, and those who are.”

“Time…or how we view life as we get older…is one of the major themes of this play,” adds the 73 year old playwright, who set each of the scenes inside a common area of the house. “When your time grows shorter, you have more of a desire to know, and to be, who you are.”

Eikenberry also sees the play as addressing issues of “how to find equity in a long term marriage…how the things that a woman would not accept from a co-worker, she would accept from her husband.”

An impressive cast of stage and screen veterans, some of them longtime friends of the Tuckerberrys, grace the production as newcomers to NJ Rep’s intimate playhouse in downtown Long Branch — including John Glover, a Tony winner for Love! Valour! Compassion! (he reprised his celebrated double-role turn in the 1997 film version), whose numerous heavyweight Broadway credits include an additional nomination for Waiting for Godot (and whose screen work has included a regular gig as Lionel Luthor in Smallville). Fellow Tony nominees Dee Hoty (Will Rogers Follies, Footloose) and Tom McGowan (La Bete) are joined by Jodi Long, a Broadway regular since the age of seven — and David Rasche, whose vast body of work boasts his starring turn in the under-appreciated cop-show satire Sledge Hammer!

“These actors are giving me a lot…I’m inspired by them,” says Tucker of his stellar cast. “I’m having the time of my life watching these people get into my play.”

They’re all working under the direction of another celebrated newcomer to the NJ Rep fold, Australia-based Nadia Tass, whose many award winning and high-profile projects have included the made for TV film of The Miracle Worker — and who attached to the project when she was recommended by the agent she shares in common with Michael Tucker. As Eikenberry notes, “there are layered, intricate relationships between the characters of this play…and Nadia is just brilliant in the way that she delves into these relationships.”

Fern Hill previews on August 9 and 10 at 8 p.m. and August 11 at 3 p.m., with the show opening on Saturday night, August 11, and continuing on August 12 and Thursdays through Sundays until September 9. Full schedule details and ticket reservations ($46; opening night $50) are available by calling 732-229-3166 or visiting njrep.org.