Lunchtime play serves up existential fare

By Ethan Stanislawski

Going out to lunch with mom is a premise perfectly suited for a one-act play, and it’s a credit to playwright Joel Drake Johnson for using this setup accordingly in Four Places. Four Places, which feels long for its 90 minutes, couldn’t be a better selection for the Victory Gardens: It appeals to the blue-haired subscriber crowd, but it’s also a vibrant new play from an in-house playwright with a lot to offer to the literati. When I walked into the theater and surveyed the audience—not to mention heard Andy Williams and Perry Como playing before the curtain—I thought I was in for a Tuesdays with Morrie–esque exercise in sappiness. I walked out thinking I had just seen what a Eugene O’Neill play would be if it were tighter and less obvious.

From the very beginning of Four Places, when brother and sister Warren (Peter Burns) and Ellen (Meg Thalken) pick up their mother Peggy (Mary Ann Thebus) for lunch, it’s obvious that something unusual is up. Johnson is smart to leave the real purpose of the visit as subtext until much later in the play. When they get to the restaurant, where Peggy is a regular, she is pampered by waitress Barb, whom Jennifer Avery turns into a model of passive-aggressive bitchiness.

As in all great plays, each relationship and character exists in a gray area. Peggy complains that her children are teaming up to confront her about her living situation, but she responds with a tone of immaturity more fitting of a five-year-old than of an old lady; the restaurant setting was chosen in order to prevent her from throwing a tantrum, which she does anyway. At the same time, Warren and Ellen do not form a perfect unit themselves. Ellen has just come back from Italy after the death of her husband, and Warren’s job as a teacher is on the rocks. Over time, the play progresses from an overly polite attempt to keep up appearances to a downright traumatic slice of life for everyone involved.

The play itself is slightly better than the production it is given, though director Sandy Shinner, who has worked with all of Johnson’s plays at Victory Gardens, does a fine job overall. The main problem is that the cast often has trouble taking the high dive in emotional transitions. The pseudo-impressionistic paintings in the background of Jack Magaw’s sets are also somewhat incongruous with the setting at the forefront. Still, it requires great acting talent to negotiate the characters’ emotions and desperate attempts to maintain decorum, so Shinner was right to have the actors err on the side of restraint.

Despite the standard demographic of subscribers to a theater like the Victory Gardens, it’s typical that plays feature a youthful innocent making foolish, immature decisions. However, this doesn’t mean the play is only suited for the characters’ age group; I found myself wondering if my relatives go through similar situations when I don’t see them at family events.

Four Places’s title refers to the play’s revolving set, but it can also be seen as an allusion to the private world where each character lives. There’s lots of talk about what aspects of one’s personal life should and should not be discussed with family, and the characters waver between repressing their thoughts and unloading them almost on a minute-by-minute basis in Four Places. However, even after all seems lost, the existential mixes with hope as Johnson provides something of a silver lining to the end of the play. That mix is ultimately what ends up being Four Places’s greatest accomplishment. It’s not Tuesdays with Morrie, but instead something everyone, young and old, can relate to.