“Fern Hill” delves into the nature of long-standing relationships

"Fern Hill" with Jill Eikenberry, Jodi Long, Dee Hoty. Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas
Fern Hill a world premiere production at New Jersey Repertory Company

Michael Tucker’s new play Fern Hill receives its world premiere production at Long Branch’s New Jersey Repertory Company. It is a well-crafted play with a skillful director and a cast at the peak of their dramatic skills. It is practically perfect in every way. New Jersey Rep should take pride in their latest production.

"Fern Hill" with David Rasche and Tom McGowan pictured. Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas
“Fern Hill” with David Rasche and Tom McGowan pictured. Photo credit: SuzAnne Barabas

Fern Hill takes place at the farm home of painter Sunny and philosopher-author Jer (Jill Eikenberry and David Rasche) in upstate New York. During a celebration of Jer’s and musician Billy’s (Tom McGowan) shared birthday, Sunny raises the possibility of the celebrants — which include artist Vincent (John Glover), his photographer-wife Darla (Dee Hoty), and Billy’s wife Michiko (Jodi Long) — moving to the spacious farm. By living together, they could provide mutual support, companionship, and caring as they navigate their senior years. The idea is opposed by Jer, who assumes his opposition will be sufficient to kill the idea, and is disagreeably surprised when it doesn’t. During the course of the evening and the weeks that follow, secrets come to light leading to transformations and the possibility of healing taking place between and among the three couples.

Every part of this play is fresh and unexpected. Actor/playwright Michael Tucker’s script is humorous without being gag-laden and serious without becoming maudlin. His dialog is full of reminiscences, long-running but not serious disagreements, common likes, and mutual appreciations that friends share. Thus he has written true-to-life characters that, under the guidance of director Nadia Tass, become a group that you easily accept as having been closely-knit for many years.

The actors are nothing short of outstanding
"Fern Hill" world premier with Jill Eikenberry and John Glover in photo by SuzAnne Barabas
“Fern Hill” world premier with Jill Eikenberry and John Glover in photo by SuzAnne Barabas

As for the actors, they are nothing short of outstanding. Top among them is John Glover’s portrayal of an older man undergoing hip replacement surgery. The way he moves around the stage, his every choice of gesture, movement, and facial expression, reveals an actor at the peak of his talent. David Rasche’s skilled portrayal of an unlikeable, but not evil, character is fascinating to see. Tom McGowan and Jodi Long’s couple provides a fair amount of humor but never fall into buffoonery or clownishness. Dee Hoty portrays a woman concerned for her husband’s well-being, yet able to trust her friends enough to leave him in their care while she attends an important exhibition of her work in Europe. Last but not least, Jill Eikenberry (playwright Tucker’s wife) delivers a strong portrayal of a soft-spoken woman with both a warm, generous heart and the focused determination of a laser beam. Together, this cast delivers more sheer acting power than many larger casts in much bigger productions can muster.

Jessica Parks’ set, a large living room/dining room/kitchen, looks comfortable and gives the impression of being lived in for many years. Jill Nagel’s lighting and Merek Royce Press’ sound make major contributions to this impression as well as aiding the flow of the piece. As for Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes, they are true to character, of the present without being trendy, and give visual confirmation of the characters’ easy familiarity with each other.

Fern Hill is of a quality rare to find in any play

While New Jersey Repertory Company has been consistent in presenting outstanding works, many getting their world premieres here, Fern Hill is of a quality rare to find in any play. The writing, the direction, the technical work, and above all the acting talent unite to create a play that would be a must-see for any serious theatre lover in any season. I strongly encourage you to see Fern Hill before its all-too-brief run is over.

Fern Hill is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch through September 9th. For tickets and information, visit njrep.org.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.