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Two Tony winners, perfectly paired in ‘The Outgoing Tide’

Jack (Thomas J. Cox left) is used quarrels his parents (John Mahoney Rondi Reed) “The Outgoing Tide.”

Jack (Thomas J. Cox, left) is used to the quarrels of his parents (John Mahoney and Rondi Reed) in “The Outgoing Tide.”

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◆ Through June 9

◆ Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie

◆ $30-$50

◆ (847) 673-6300;


Updated: June 25, 2011 12:25AM

There is a special timbre to an audience’s laughter of recognition, and it was fully audible throughout Sunday’s performance of “The Outgoing Tide,” the Bruce Graham play now in its world premiere at Northlight Theatre.

There also is a special sort of pleasure that infuses a production in which two veteran actors, who have long since put a high gloss on their craft, get to play opposite each other. And you certainly can feel that as John Mahoney and Rondi Reed, each a Tony Award winner, give an informal master class in acting as they play a couple that has been married for 50 years and is now trying to negotiate the volatile currents of the end game.

The storyline in Graham’s play is an increasingly familiar one these days as people live longer and must deal with the onset of Alzheimer’s and other care-intensie diseases. There are decisions to be made — by the afflicted person who still can make them, by the aging but healthy spouse who clearly will need help caring for a deteriorating partner, and/or by the adult children of such a couple — a baby boomer already in full midlife mode. And invariably that classic question will arise: Whose life is it, anyway?

Graham has crafted a skillful, punchy piece that careens expertly between the painful and the comic, features a number of laugh-out-loud one liners (delivered with equal aplomb by Mahoney and Reed), and very deftly incorporates some elements of surprise. And director BJ Jones, along with the ideally cast Thomas J. Cox (whose wiry build and gaunt face suggests he easily could be Mahoney’s son), captures the play’s shifting moods ideally, putting its many other concisely limned themes (the father-son relationship, the plight of the only child, generational shifts in attitudes about marriage), into sharp relief.

Set on the patio of a wood shingle cottage on Chesapeake Bay (Brian Sidney Bembridge’s handsome architectural set is down payment worthy), the play begins as Jack (Cox), pays a visit to his “old school” Irish Catholic parents, and finds himself caught in the middle of their opposing choices.

Gunner (Mahoney), well aware he is losing his mental faculties, is fiercely resistant to the sort of assisted living facility his exhausted and frightened wife, Peg (Reed), wants to move into. And he has his own dramatic alternative plan in mind — one that would insure the futures of both his wife (with whom he has a loving but prickly relationship), and his son (a father of three, now in the process of a divorce). As Gunner puts it, he has “loose ends” to tie up, and he knows time is running out.

Mahoney, whippet thin, fast-talking and sly, expertly captures the brutal frustration inherent in advancing Alzheimer’s, while also suggesting the innate irascibility and cruelty Gunner was capable of as a younger man. Reed is wonderfully transformed in this role — determined and feisty, but softer than usual, and lighter of voice, so that she truly suggests Gunner’s youthful emory of her as his working class Grace Kelly. And Cox deftly suggests that Jack is very much the product of his parents’ long-running emotional tug of war.

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