By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Feb 26, 2018 at 4:01 PM

If the shows on Milwaukee stages this season are any indication, America’s playwrights seem to be grappling with the issues surrounding caring for aging parents. Earlier this year Next Act produced "The Secret Mask," featuring an estranged son dealing with his ailing father, who recently had a stroke. Meanwhile, In Tandem Theatre opened "The Outgoing Tide" this week, featuring a son who never lived up to his father’s expectations, summoned home to discuss care options for his dad, who is suffering from dementia.

Both productions starred the incomparable Jim Pickering as the man whose body and brain are betraying him, and who can’t stand living in an impaired mental state. And he is by far the best thing that each play had going for it. In the case of "The Outgoing Tide," it's just another lackluster variation in the growing "On Golden Pond" canon, hobbled by an uninspired script and static direction by In Tandem artistic director Chris Flieller.

The story of "The Outgoing Tide," by Bruce Graham, checks all the necessary conflict boxes neatly. Peg (Susan Sweeney) is worried about Gunner (Pickering) and his failing memory. She wants to move him to an assisted living facility, even though he is dead set against it. Married for more than 50 years, the couple has been through a lot of ups and downs. They now love, annoy and ignore each other in equal parts.

Peg and Gunner may have tried their best raising their son Jack (Simon Jon Provan) but he could still use some therapy to work out many issues of his childhood. These range from his parents’ constant, often frightening tall tales, to his father’s suspicion that Jack would turn out to be a sissy – or worse, queer as "a three dollar bill." Jack has his own problems: a pending divorce and a computer game-addicted teenager at home who he doesn’t understand, and likes even less.

When Gunner comes up with his own end-of-life plan, his wife and son object, but they don’t offer any better suggestions. This leaves the trio moping around a cabin that is supposed to be on the Chesapeake Bay, but looks much more like a cartoon version of Northern Wisconsin. The playing area is small, so mostly they sit center stage or look off into a sloppily constructed blue horizon, stage left.

As flat as the staging is, the dramatic and emotional arc for the play isn’t much better. And the script’s many flashbacks don’t help. They don’t fill in the blanks for these characters; they simply reinforce what we’ve already been told.

As Gunner, Jim Pickering is at his crotchety, stubborn best. Small bursts of rage punctuate his performance of a man desperately trying to hold it together so he can exit his life on his own terms. Susan Sweeney tries to find a softer side to the reactive and perennially disappointed Peg, but the script sets her up as little more than an angry naysayer. And unfortunately she and Pickering don’t find many moments when the audience can see the genuine affection that their long marriage was built on. Provan simply shrugs his shoulders as the only child of the bickering couple, rudderless and ineffectual as he faces middle-age alone.

"The Outgoing Tide," like other plays of this genre, presents the very real dilemmas that many families must face when a parent is struck with a debilitating illness. And coming to terms with the "disappearance" of a loved one due to dementia, long before their body succumbs to death, is obviously a horrific experience. Unfortunately, this production does little to shed light on the real struggles inherent in the situation, or the way families – even fractured ones – can get through them.