‘Fern Hill’ is a session of (sometimes weighty) words with friends

Jill Eikenberry and John Glover head a stellar cast of celebrated character players in FERN HILL, the play by Michael Tucker now in its world premiere engagement at NJ Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photos by SUZANNE BARABAS

Published in the Asbury Park Press, August 17, 2018

As painter and college professor Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) tells it, the first time that she raised the specter of an assisted-living arrangement to her mother, “she looked at me like I was a terrorist.” 

That same aversion to the notion of growing old among strangers —a thought no doubt on Sunny’s mind as she approaches retirement age — sparks the proceedings in Fern Hill, the new play by actor-author (and Eikenberry’s husband of some 45 years) Michael Tucker. Now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, the ensemble piece assembles six character actors of frankly awesome credentials with an in-demand director of international repute, for a prestige project that turns NJ Rep’s modest shadow-box stage into a rare Shoreside showcase for some top-shelf talents.

In this, the second NJ Rep endeavor for the married LA Law veterans known as “The Tuckerberrys,” the titular setting is an upstate farm house owned by Sunny and her English professor husband Jer (David Rasche) — and yes, regular theatergoers, we are once more planted on the dramatically fertile home turf of that curious species known as career academics — a locale that’s become a preferred gathering place for “the Sunny and Jer Show” and two other couples with whom they’ve maintained long-standing relationships. Vincent (Tony winner John Glover) is a noted painter whose nimble wit belies a body in breakdown mode, while his spouse Darla (Dee Hoty) is a gallery-exhibited photographer in breakout mode, with an impending show in Europe and some guilt over the prospect of leaving her ailing hubby at home. Fellow faculty member Michiko (Jodi Long) is herself the one most often left to hold down the home front, married as she is to the affable but aging tour-bus rocker and bon vivant Billy (Tom McGowan). Ranging in age from a rounded-off sixty to an arguable eighty, these people of education and accomplishment and passionately creative pursuits have one thing in common above all else: they are each, in their own way, feeling a little too old to be doing things the way they’ve been doing it for the past bunch of years. 

David Rasche and Tom McGowan are longtime friends with different attitudes about growing older, in the Michael Tucker play FERN HILL. Photos by SUZANNE BARABAS

Sunny’s solution is simple enough, even if burdened with no small amount of logistical issues. The six great friends, who are practically kin to each other anyway, will all move in together and share quarters (and resources, and positive energies, and good times) at Fern Hill; bypassing the whole business of nursing homes and family decisions altogether, as they “care for each other” in a communal situation that gets likened to both an “orphanage” and a “circle of bliss.” An arrangement in which the Fern Hill hosts look after a post-hip replacement Vincent — thereby allowing Darla the opportunity to jet off to Vienna guilt-free — becomes a pilot program of sorts for the idea, even as the first major cracks begin to appear in the circle.

To be clear, this is neither “The Odd Sextuple,” nor some extended key-party riff on Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Sitcom scenarios, in which The Ricardos and The Mertzes are compelled to paint a line down the middle of their shared living quarters, are scrupulously avoided — and, despite the presence of a well-stocked liquor table, it’s all too civilized for things to devolve into a cocktail of vitriol and vermouth with George and Martha of Virginia Woolf. 

What it is, apart from an opportunity for a troupe of skilled players to strut their seemingly effortless stuff, is a journey into the realm of couples therapy, marital secrets, and group interventions; one that shares some Venn-diagram intersect with The M Spot, Tucker’s deep-tissue delve into a calcifying marriage (and its attendant issues of needs unmet) from 2015. Although the playwright has opted out of performing his own script here, the fingerprints of the multi-faceted Michael T are all over these characters — particularly guitar-slinging gourmet Billy, whose compelling oratory on the nurture of the perfect clam sauce so beautifully betrays the voice of the author who composed that tantalizing memoir, I Never Forget a Meal.

While the phrase “First World Problems” sometimes comes to mind when regarding the fears and foibles of this reasonably well-to-do crew, there are also some universal bugaboos at large in that quaintly rustic country setting (Maybe too rustic? That antique refrigerator seems scarcely up to the task of servicing the needs of a whole household of modern middle-aged foodies). Questions of fidelity, storm clouds of self-doubt, late-innings revelations all bedevil these seemingly comfortable characters as they would anyone anywhere — and if the play ultimately avoids going for the dramatic jugular, it’s the deep-vein thrombosis of all things left unsaid that poses the silent-killer danger here. Celebrated Australian director Nadia Tass crafts a New Jersey stage debut that subtly, even subversively, aims to spur some spirited conversations among attending couples on the drive home from the theater — a hallmark of quality if ever there was one.

In the end, what we have is a bunch of splendid actors — six veteran pros whose major award nominations and high-profile credits are indeed too numerous to mention here — sitting or standing around talking, and having a contagiously high old time doing it. Without taking anything away from the many bright young up-and-comers and regional “stock company” stalwarts who regularly perform at NJ Rep, it’s a particular pleasure to watch this cast at work; celebrating the good things in life, and cementing the kind of bond that could only come from genuine friendship.

Fern Hill continues at NJ Rep’s downtown Long Branch playhouse, Thursdays through Sundays until September 9. Full schedule details and ticket reservations ($46) are available by calling (732)229-3166 or visiting njrep.org.