Michael Tucker’s comedy ‘Fern Hill’ explores aging friends and their foibles

Jill Eikenberry and John Glover in a scene from "Fern Hill." (PHOTO: SuzAnne Barabas)
Jill Eikenberry and John Glover in a scene from “Fern Hill.” (PHOTO: SuzAnne Barabas)

An amazing display of top notch acting by six very talented theater pros is on display in the world premiere of “Fern Hill” at the New Jersey Repertory Theater in Long Branch, N.J., through Sept. 9.

These are the kind of actors we see on TV (“Law and Order,” “Elementary,” “The Sinner,” “Veep”),   in movies (“The Birdcage,” “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “Flags of our Fathers”),  perhaps in a featured or recurring role, who take these gigs so they can support their theater habit. 

The two-hour play features Tony Award-winner John Glover (“Love! Valour! Compassion!); three-time Tony nominee for best actress in a musical Dee Hoty (“Footloose,” “The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public,” “The Will Rogers Follies”); Drama Desk Award nominee for Outstanding Feature Actress in a Musical Jill Eikenberry (plus five Emmy Award nominations for “L.A. Law”); Tony nominee Tom McGowan (“La Bête”); David Rasche (seven Broadway shows) and Jodi Long (five Broadway shows).

And that’s just smattering of their credits that also include off-Broadway, London’s West End and regional theaters around the country and in New Jersey: Two River Theater in Red Bank, George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.

David Rasche (left) and Tom McGowan duel over the stove and recipes in Michael Tucker's new play "Fern Hill." (PHOTO: SuzAnne Barabas)
David Rasche (left) and Tom McGowan duel over the stove and recipes in Michael Tucker’s new play “Fern Hill.” (PHOTO: SuzAnne Barabas)

A well-balanced ensemble — each individual performance is a mini master class in stage acting — with Glover’s  sublime performance a stand-out. And McGowan, a graduate of St. Rose High School in his hometown of Belmar, has many delicious  comic retorts that hit the bullseye every time. 

But enough about the actors. What about the play?

“Fern Hill” is Michael Tucker’s third play produced by New Jersey Rep. (A fourth is scheduled for its Theater Brut festival Sept. 20-30.) He also has written three memoirs and a novel, so the guy can write. He is best known for his years portraying Stuart Markowitz on TV’s “L.A. Law.” (His wife,  Jill Eikenberry, played Ann Kelsey, and both appeared in 171 episodes from 1986-’94.) 

The play centers on three active, long-time married couples nearing retirement. The play was previously workshopped at the 2017 Eugene O”Neill Playwrights Conference. 

Snappy dialogue, funny lines and a trending concept aside, it still needs more work in the clarification and rationale departments. 

rom left, Jill Eikenberry, Jodi Long and Dee Hoty, the women/wifes in tghe workd premiere of Michael Tucker's play about aging at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (PHOTO: SuzAnne Barabas)
From left, Jill Eikenberry, Jodi Long and Dee Hoty, the women/wifes in tghe workd premiere of Michael Tucker’s play about aging at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. (PHOTO: SuzAnne Barabas)

Sunny (Eikenberry) and Jer (Rasche) own Fern Hill where each summer Vincent (Glover) and Darla (Hoty), and Billy (McGowan) and Michiko (Long), spend time eating, drinking, talking and enjoying each other’s company. 

This summer, Sunny suggests the city couples sell their homes and move to the farm so they help each other as  they age. 

“Have my friends around while I’m falling apart,” she says, although they show no signs of slowing down. (The actors range in age from 59 to 74.)

At first astonished, they warm to the idea. Vincent, a painter, just wants a space in the barn to continue his work. Darla is a photographer with a new show about to open in Europe. Billy tours with a band, and Michiko,  works at a university arts program. 

Will Michiko retire, or commute? Meanwhile, she craves alone time — even when her husband isn’t touring  with the band, so why agree to a household of six, rather than two.

And Sunny’s husband, Jer, doesn’t like the idea of a “commune” at all. He’s blindsided. Didn’t they talk about it first? And by Act 2 we learn he also has a guilty secret.

Act 2 also is dominated by a frank discussion about sex and intimacy and how it changes with familiarity and age. It’s a bit awkward and   confusing.

There are, however, plenty of laughs and moments of pathos that a mature audience familiar with senior citizen problems and situations will enjoy. 

Direction by Nadia Tass is superb, as is the set design by Jessica Parks and lighting by Jill Nagle. NJRep’s small stage can  look cramped, especially when there are scenes in multiple places.  Not this time.  It’s spacious and the occasional glimpses of the farmland   through the kitchen door makes the set feel almost expansive.

“Fern Hill” continues Thursdays through Sundays at the New Jersey Repertory Theater, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, through Sept. 9. Tickets $55. Call 732-229-3166 or visit www.njrep.org for more information. 

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