by Geoff Hoff~
What to do with our aging parents. It is a problem that many face, some more elegantly than others. It is especially troubling when one of your parents starts to do odd things. When you notice this, it is often to late to take matters into your own hands. However, when the parent in question has always done odd things, what to do becomes less clear.
In Four Places, now playing in a Rogue Machine production at Theatre-Theater, Ellen and her mother Peggy go out to lunch once a week. This week, however, Ellen has brought along her brother, Warren. They obviously have an agenda, but what it is won’t be made clear for some time.
The fourth in the Four Places referred to in the title could be Ellen and Warren’s father, never seen, obviously very ill, or it could be the waitress who serves them at the restaurant, Barb, who also has her own agenda.
The space at Theatre-Theatre is exceedingly small, but the set for Four Places by Mark Guirguis is amazing. He has managed to put the inside of a car, the restaurant waiting area, the booth in the back where the lunch is to be had and the women’s room all on the stage, all with amazing attention to detail and all without crowding. The one actual scene change, from the car to the booth, is handled with such grace, the forward movement of the story isn’t interrupted in the slightest. Kudos for both Mr. Guirguis and director Robin Larsen for the theatre-craft.
The play is both funny and a little harrowing, uncomfortable and familiar. All the characters have something to hide (except, possibly, Ellen, the more wounded of the two children.) Even the father, who we never see, has something to hide, something to be discovered. As the mother and her children converse and confront one another, bit by bit revealing pieces of themselves they had always intended to be kept secret, the audience is brought along, amused but uncomfortable, waiting for the inevitable concussion.
All four actors are top notch, although Tim Bagley as the sullen, angry son is, perhaps, a little more removed, a bit more one note than might be completely satisfying. Anne Gee Byrd is wonderful, affecting and funny as the mother. She is the type of mother who was probably a favorite of all the kids in the neighborhood, but to her own children, slightly a monster. From the outside, charming, but you would not have wanted to grow up in her sphere. Lisa Rothschiller is also quite good as Barb the waitress, although, perhaps, directed to be a little too perky.
The real standout is Roxanne Hart as Ellen, the daughter. This is a woman who holds her anger in, causing a slightly passive-aggressive way of coping with life. We fully believe the pain, hurt and bitterness she is carrying around, almost completely unacknowledged by herself. A delicate and laudable achievement by an amazingly assured performer that could have been simply trite handled by a lesser actor.
The script, by Joel Drake Johnson, is compelling, well written and very well constructed, bringing the audience full circle: It seems to end exactly where it began, but with all that has happened in the interim, going back to where it began is impossible. There are also no real good guys in his story, and, therefore, no real bad guys. It is an achievement that we still, then, care for all of them.
With the compelling script and assured performances, I still left feeling like something was missing. Not anything big, but enough to notice. Upon some reflection, I think it was in the direction. Robin Larsen has an obviously sure hand as a director, and her cast made the most of where she lead them, but there was an evenness about the feel of the play that a little chaos might have gone far to alleviating. There are circumstances, put there for definite reasons by the playwright, to be examined and to influence the forward motion of the story, that aren’t fully developed. One such circumstance, as an example, is that the mother, in the beginning of the play, is observed by her children making strange faces out her living room window at the neighbors. Her children ask her about it and she says, simply, “oh, you saw that?”, but the moment does not inform the character or the relationships between the characters and becomes simply an amusing distraction rather than the telling quirk that points to the foundation of the woman’s psyche. There are other moments of childish or child-like behavior that are also not fully examined.
Also, the revelations from moment to moment don’t build upon one another as strongly as they might, the conflicts and life-long bitternesses and resentments aren’t fully examined or taken full advantage of. Besides a climactic moment in the car on the way home from the meal, everything is more controlled and even-handed than what the script and story seemed to call for.
I love seeing a play put together with this much talent and craft; a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to write about. There is a different level of observation available to a critic, to any audience member, in such circumstances. When there is so much right, the subtleties of the art of theatre can be examined in a heightened way. I truly wish I had that opportunity much, much more often.
Costumes, designed by Jocelyn Hublau were quite good. Lighting was by Angeline Summers-Marvel. Sound was by Veronica J. Lancaster.
Four Places is performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 pm through June 13th, 2010. After that, it will be performed in rep with another play and running Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 5 pm and Sundays at 7pm through July 3, 2010. There will be no performances of it on June 14 through June 19.
Theatre-Theater is located at 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, 90019, just west of La Brea.
Ticket prices: $25, students, $20.
Reservations online at www.roguemachinetheatre.com or by phone at (323) 960-4424