by Susan Farrington, A Review
The Sanford Herald
Thursday, February 21, 2002
DURHAM - Set to an opening background of plaintive banjo strains, “A Tune for Tommy” is a ballad that tells about how music can swell in a man’s soul and spill over to embrace the world with its exuberance. It’s also a lyric poem that speaks of life and loss with aching poignancy…a daughter’s loving tribute to the father who once filled her childhood with joyful memories.
Interspersed with flashbacks to happier, gentler moments, the insightful script moves forward from 1994, when Tommy Thompson receives his diagnosis of dementia; to the present. Before the audience’s eyes, the former Red Clay Rambler gradually descends into an impenetrable fog of incomprehension, while his daughter Jesse stands by helplessly.
Tommy’s mind, which was once filled with the philosophical words of T. S. Eliot and banjo music, is slipping away like a wounded animal. Watching and struggling to handle the role of caregiver, Jesse experiences many emotions. At first there are the fears for her father’s safety and the frustrations of trying to maintain his dignity and independence. Then at last, realizing that she is no longer able to forestall the inevitable, she places him in a nursing home. And it is here that their love story unfolds.
In all aspects of the title role, David Ring is superb. He is the youthful Tommy, cavorting and clowning in an apron and sunbonnet to the traditional tune “Sally Ann.” He is the eternally upbeat dad, preparing Thanksgiving feasts and searching for elves with his small daughter. He is the wonderful poet who tells her, “I promise you darling we will never part, for you are the one rose that lives in my heart.” And his final moments on stage, as he pantomimes dementia’s progressively deteriorating state and ultimate passage into oblivion, are incredible. His round smiling face remains luminous, reflecting an ethereal sweetness that is almost unbearable.
As dutiful daughter, Marcia Edmundson also gives a moving performance, reminiscing about a past when anything was possible and anguishing about a present she can do nothing about. When she sits by her dad’s side agonizing --“Nothing can take away the cinders inside when you burn your own daddy”--the words belong to all those who have walked in Jesse’s shoes.
Observing the close bond between Tommy and Jesse growing stronger with impending loss keeps one smiling through the tears as the veil descends and their ongoing conversations with life are hushed at last. Together the actors and the musicians weave a magic spell that lingers long after Tommy’s last thoughts fade. They take us to a place “where all is love and the soul never dies,” where grief can hopefully one day be erased.
“A Tune for Tommy” -- a daughter’s elegy to her dad -- is an unforgettable play that everyone should see.