Michael Tucker’s ensemble comedy Fern Hill (directed by Nadia Tass) tells the story of three married couples—all longtime friends—who hatch a plan to move from New York City into a large farmhouse where, together, they will live out their twilight years. Fern Hill is the name of the property in question, and it is also certainly an allusion to Dylan Thomas’ poem of the same name, in which an older speaker looks back on youthful days.
The farmhouse is owned by Jer (Mark Blum), a writer, and Sunny (Jill Eikenberry), a woman dedicated to the art of painting, but full of self-doubt. At the top of the play, the two other couples have arrived at the house to discuss the plans for the elder-commune and also to celebrate the milestone birthdays of the three men. Jer is about to turn 70, while career rock musician Billy (Mark Linn-Baker) is approaching 60, and accomplished painter Vincent (John Glover) will soon be 80. The couples seem to have become acquainted through their connections to academia and the art world. Both Billy’s wife Michiko (Jodi Long) and Vincent’s wife, Darla (Ellen Parker)—a photographer whose career has at long last taken off—work at the same school where Jer teaches.
Much of the first act consists of group scenes, with several or all of the characters together on-stage. As the music of their lives plays, they gambol and bop around the kitchen and dining area of the farmhouse, in what seems an obvious homage to the most memorable scenes in the 1983 film The Big Chill. They banter and joke and tease one another about their failings. (Linn-Baker is especially good in these scenes, taking on the role of hippie-ish class clown.) There is, however, one considerable obstacle to the group’s shared fantasy retirement: Jer is staunchly against the idea of the group-living arrangement.
As we spend some time with the characters, we learn that a crisis has recently erupted in Jer and Sunny’s marriage, which may in part explain Jer’s opposition to the others’ plan. The others, however, seem little dissuaded from their plan by Jer’s obstinacy. In fact, they take it upon themselves to help him and Sunny sort out the marital crisis. The general feeling seems to be that it takes a village to save a marriage.
Why have these people become such a tightly knit group? Tucker doesn’t scratch very far below the surface of things here to answer that. We learn little about the characters’ histories with one another. We hear some talk of the fond memories of time spent together at Fern Hill over the years, but there are few particulars, other than that they’ve all eaten a lot of meals together. We hear, too, a little about the characters’ grown children, but only in passing. We see no cooing over pictures of grandbabies. This lot seem much more interested in what’s going on in their own circle.
The second act has more scenes in which the characters interact with one another two at a time, and from this we gain a bit more insight into some components of the overall group dynamic. But, again, backstory doesn’t really seem of much concern to Tucker. There’s obviously a fairly large age range among the group. It’s intergenerational, really, with Vincent, for instance, literally old enough to be Billy’s father. How does that heterogeneity inform their plans to live together as a chosen family?
Tucker’s dialogue is breezy and amusing, and it’s fun to see these talented actors—all mainstays of the New York stage—being playful together. Together, they make interesting stuff out of the material they’ve been given, and they are all highly watchable. But would the play seem more fulfilling and important if there were more fully developed personal and interpersonal conflicts?
We do, at one point, witness Vincent’s trepidation about mortality and we’re clued in that the heavily boozing/toking Billy can become obsessively worried about everything from Lyme disease to dirty bombs. But it’s only the conflict between Sunny and Jer that we’re asked to take truly seriously. As Jer, Blum gives us moments of real, excruciating pain and anger. He can be brooding and even brutal. When he lashes out at Sunny for humiliating him in front of the others, it’s as if somebody from a harrowing Eugene O’Neill drama somehow stumbled into one of the frothier Neil Simon comedies. Blum’s performance—momentarily anyway—grounds the play in something real, something that matters.
In the play’s final stretch, there’s a scene that comes very close to an intervention on Jer’s behalf. Tucker seems to be working at finding a resolution that will be reassuring but not too pat. But then it’s as though the time clock has suddenly run out, and the action must come to an abrupt stop whether the characters are ready for it or not. At the very end, Tucker, Tass and lighting director Kate McGee put a literal spotlight on Jer and Sunny, who give each other a look that’s ambiguous yet meant to say volumes. It’s hardly a satisfying conclusion.
The work by McGee and the other designers is just fine. Fern Hill’s set, by Jessica Parks, is a credible depiction of an old country house long occupied by city folk. The walls of the high-ceilinged great room are plastered with artwork. Patricia Doherty’s costumes are comfy-looking and suitably unremarkable, but it seems she had a bit of fun with Vincent’s paint-stained work clothes and Billy’s aging-rocker getups, which look as though they were taken from store windows along the laid-back streets of Margaritaville.
Fern Hill (extended through October 27, 2019)
MBL Productions & Mary J. Davis, with Judith Manocherian LLC, in association with New Jersey Repertory Company
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission