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Usually the L.A. Law costars act together, but this time he wrote the play
Michael Tucker is an enthusiastic storyteller. Even mundane questions spark amusing tales, which his wife, Jill Eikenberry, often gently clarifies or expands on. Married for 46 years, they have been acting together even longer -- they met in 1970 doing theatre at Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage. Since then, they've costarred in myriad projects on stage and screen, most famously eight seasons of L.A. Law. They may be long past the honeymoon phase, but they still seem totally smitten with each other, both personally and professionally.
Their latest collaboration finds Tucker, 74, in the new role of playwright. His dramedy Fern Hill, currently at 59E59 Theaters, is about three mature couples who are discussing moving in together to share the financial, emotional and physical burdens of aging. Eikenberry, 72, plays Sunny, who loves the idea, but when her disgruntled husband Jer (Mark Blum) resists, the cracks in their marriage start to spread. Tucker -- who's also penned multiple books and another play -- acknowledges that all his writing is "personal" in some way. What parts of Fern Hill were inspired by real life? Tucker and Eikenberry are happy to tell the stories…
Raven Snook: Michael, what planted the seed for Fern Hill?
Michael Tucker: Two things sort of sparked the idea. We have a house in Italy that we've had for 16 years, and we have a whole community of people over there. It's like a second life for us. A few years ago, a whole bunch of us were attending a sort of village festival, they call it a sagra. We went and had the public dinner in the main square and then dancing and at about 1 o'clock our gang gathered at a bar --
Jill Eikenberry: A bunch of expats...
Tucker: Yes, a bunch of expats mostly, and the talk came around to Jill's mom, who was failing with dementia at the time. Someone else's father was in the last stages of cancer, so the talk turned to what happens when we get there? We started to talk about the possibility of finding what Italians call a borgo, which is like a group of houses that we could buy and have a central place. And then of course it got funny, because there are a lot of funny people in our group. One of the guys said, "Oh, wait a minute now, we have two painters, three photographers, a poet, actors -- excuse me Michael and Jill, but actors -- who's going to change the light bulb?" Then four years ago on my 70th birthday, we gathered with two other couples --
Eikenberry: Both from that Italy group, who also live in New York.
Tucker: One was the actor John Pankow, who's our dear friend, he was turning 60 a week or so later, and our very close friend Michael Venezia, who's a painter, was turning 80 a few months after that. And I went home and I just started to try to get these guys down, to get the sort of spirit of these people, you know? And that was the beginning of the play.
Snook: This is actually your second play. In 2015 you wrote and starred in The M Spot at New Jersey Repertory Company, where Fern Hill had its world premiere last year. Why didn't you want to act in this play, too?
Tucker: Actually, I didn't want to be in The M Spot, but I couldn't get anybody down there that I wanted to play the part, so I did it. But I don't ever want to do that again because I didn't have the playwright experience of being interpreted by somebody else. And that's sort of the amazing thing about playwriting. Everything's in your control when you write a novel; at a certain point nothing is in your control when you write a play! I'm in a lot of the Fern Hill characters. There's a lot of me in Billy [a hilarious hippie musician played by Mark Linn-Baker, who's married to Jodi Long's no-nonsense Michiko]. There's a lot of me in Jer, and there's a lot of me in Sunny. I played all the characters for two years in my mind while I was writing it. Not just in my mind -- as Jill will tell you, I talk to myself all the time.
Eikenberry: I would always ask, "Who are you being now?"
Snook: Jill, in another interview you mentioned that working on Fern Hill has strengthened your marriage. How so?
Eikenberry: Well it's been very interesting. We have had a collaboration in terms of the part of Sunny. I've definitely had input about her. We've been with this play now for a while because it started at the O'Neill two summers ago. In each iteration, Sunny has become a stronger character and it's been very exciting to be part of that. I think Mike, he plays all the parts as he writes, but of course the men's parts are the ones he identifies with the most. So the fact that he's learned to identify with Sunny is very exciting to me. Also, a lot of the things that are in the play about men and women and relationships are things that we've discovered over the years together. We feel like our relationship is so strong because of the things that we've learned really in the last 20 years. I feel like it's timely in the sense that a lot of people are questioning the whole man-woman thing right now. This play is addressing a lot of complex issues about relationships, especially long-term marriages.
Snook: There's an especially poignant moment when Vincent [a charming painter played by Tony winner John Glover, who's married to Ellen Parker's earthy Darla] talks about the difference between sex and intimacy. A lot of people think they're synonymous, but they're wrong.
Tucker: Well, that's what the play is about I think.
Snook: I know Fern Hill was originally titled Assisted Living. Why did you decide to rename it after the Dylan Thomas poem?
Tucker: That's a funny story, actually. The people who run New Jersey Rep got a formal letter from these people who were producing a show called Assisted Living: The Musical. You can't copyright a title, but they had some legal thing about how they were going stop our production. They also sent a little clip of Assisted Living: The Musical that was touring Florida, and it was all about old people failing and how funny that is. And I thought, Jesus, is this what people are going to think my play's about? For me, Assisted Living was an ironic title, because these are vital people, you know?
Eikenberry: But you don't know it's an ironic title before you see the play.
Tucker: Exactly. So I was very happy to change it. So we were looking for a title and we sort of thought it should be the name of Sunny and Jer's farm. I came up with Loon Hill, but that wasn't right. And I went to bed that night and Jill stayed up and reread the poem "Fern Hill," which is my favorite poem. And I got up in the morning and she said, "Honey, that's your title." I reread the poem and burst into tears. That was it.
Snook: Without giving away too much, infidelity is a big issue in this play. Do you worry that audiences may think that plot line is autobiographical?
Eikenberry: People have brought it up and said, "I hope that wasn't you guys."
Tucker: It's fine -- they're going to think what they think. It's not a thing that happened with us. I write very personally, but that doesn't mean that I'm writing autobiographically. It means I'll use what I want to use, I'll change what I want to change, and I'll use things from other couples that I know. You steal everything, and then you make stuff up.
Snook: Michael, are you working on any other plays?
Tucker: I have two others that I'm working on.
Eikenberry: He's also talked about going back to writing a book so he doesn't have to collaborate!
Tucker: Well, you write a book and it's yours! What lands on the page is what you wrote. The words in the play are my words, but they're interpreted by our wonderful actors and director, Nadia Tass. Both are different but fascinating experiences.
Snook: Jill, you directed a short play Michael wrote at a theatre festival. Are you also looking to segue behind the scenes?
Eikenberry: I really love acting, you know? It's not so easy as I get older, as there aren't as many parts. So I decided to encourage my husband to become a playwright so he could write me some great parts. I think that was really smart!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Fern Hill. Go here to browse our current offers.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker.