When working hard just isn’t working

A portrait of one family’s financial woes in ‘Tender’

Denise Cormier and Brendan Powers in “Tender,’’ now receiving its world premiere at Gloucester Stage Company. Denise Cormier and Brendan Powers in “Tender,’’ now receiving its world premiere at Gloucester Stage Company. (Shawn G. Henry)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / July 13, 2010

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GLOUCESTER — To belong to the middle class in this age of sudden layoffs and rampant debt is to feel like you’re on ice so thin you can hear it cracking all around you.

To belong also to the “sandwich generation’’ that must care for young children and aging parents at the same time is to feel like someone dropped a two-ton weight onto that thin ice.

That is the situation confronting the married couple at the center of Kelly Younger’s “Tender,’’ a compelling if flawed drama of economic desperation now receiving its world premiere at Gloucester Stage Company.

Works such as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman’’ and David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross’’ have generated dramatic tension from the moral choices forced upon characters stretched to the breaking point financially and emotionally. “Tender’’ is not in that class — it does not scale those tragic heights — but Younger’s play has its own value as a portrait of a family under extraordinary stress and the extremes that stress drives them to.

Let’s face it, if one of the nation’s leading political figures, House minority leader John Boehner, can blithely liken the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession to an “ant’’ when 15 million people are still out of work, it’s clear that more dispatches from the real world are needed. “Tender’’ is one such dispatch and an illustration, in miniature, of the toll the recession has taken on countless families.

If that makes “Tender’’ sound like a political tract or a sociological treatise, it isn’t, though it is at points a bit schematic in its attempts to cover a lot of bases.

Amanda (Denise Cormier in a heart-rending performance) is an overworked real estate broker in Southern California, struggling to close sales and earn commissions in the middle of a slumping housing market. So little money has been coming in since her husband, Brian (Brendan Powers), was laid off, their own house is on the verge of foreclosure.

In other words, their home has gone from shelter to prison. Even as she works herself to the point of exhaustion in an attempt to keep her family afloat, Amanda feels guilty because she sees so little of their daughter. The money woes of Amanda and Brian have put considerable strain on their marriage, too. When Brian laments that “I feel like you don’t even care,’’ Amanda’s anger, fear, and frustration pour out in her reply: “I feel like we’re going to lose everything. . . . I feel totally fragmented. I feel like my whole life I’ve done nothing but manage crisis and now I’m drowning in it. So how do YOU feel about that?’’ Later, in a remark that speaks to an entire generation’s disillusionment, she says: “I thought working hard would be enough.’’

Further intensifying the pressure-cooker environment is the fact that Amanda’s headstrong father, Frank (Richard McElvain), lives with them and seems to be slipping into dementia. Attired in work boots, jeans, T-shirt, and a trucker’s cap, Frank is a handful, swaggering around the house like John Wayne and derisively calling Brian “Martha’’ (as in Martha Stewart).

While raising Amanda alone after his wife left him, Frank worked for many years as a truck driver with a specialized and mind-numbing task: driving a vehicle nicknamed a “yard goat’’ that moved trailers back and forth in a warehouse yard, never getting a taste of the open road.

He felt trapped in his life as Amanda and Brian now feel trapped in theirs. “You owe me,’’ he tells Amanda repeatedly. The walls of the house are bedecked with IOU’s Frank has written to remind the others of their obligation to him for every gesture, no matter how small. The nature of debt, and who owes what to whom, and for how long, are issues that simmer beneath the surface of “Tender.’’

Cormier is equally effective in conveying Amanda’s exposed-nerve anxiety and her moments of hopelessness, as in the quiet devastation of a scene where she learns that a house sale may be about to fall through. As Brian, Powers is too subdued and recessive; his performance needs to register more strongly for us to get a fuller sense of the shared anguish in that household. The always reliable McElvain creates a Frank who is both a selfish lout and a curiously sympathetic human being, especially in the way he clings to his dream of a life-changing adventure in the form of a family trip in an RV to William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon. “Forty-one fireplaces!’’ Frank exclaims, again and again.

The prospect of hitting the road and heading for that roomy citadel hangs tantalizingly over all three characters, offering a chance for escape, for busting free, for redemption, or maybe for plunging through that thin ice once and for all.

Don Aucoin can be reached at


Play by Kelly Younger

Directed by Eric C. Engel

Sets, Julia Noulin-Merat. Costumes, Molly Trainer. Lights, Russ Swift.

At Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main St., Gloucester. Through July 25. Tickets $37 ($32 for students and senior citizens). 978-281-4433.