Where: The Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through June 30
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Since it opened in 2010, the Den Theatre has become known as home to a handful of resident companies and hundreds of visiting troupes, but it hasn’t produced a show of its own in the last five years.
That changed with the opening of “Four Places,” Joel Drake Johnson’s devastating dysfunctional family drama that had its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater in 2008.
Perhaps even better than the original, the 80-minute revival unfolds more-or-less in real time and is impeccably directed by Lia Mortensen, who happens to be a splendid actress. She paces the action perfectly, so that all the little details of the situation and characters emerge and the tension builds until it explodes, then subsides, though never completely. She also knows how to incorporate the comedy into what essentially is a tragedy, so that the tone never seems forced or off kilter.
The prosaically named play begins in a car, then moves to three places in a restaurant: a waiting area, a table for three, and the ladies’ room. The occasion is the weekly lunch that middle-aged Ellen (Amy Montgomery) has with her mother Peggy (Meg Thalken) at the latter’s favorite restaurant. This is usually a highlight for Peggy, who enjoys the smothering attentions of the waitress, Barb (Rebekah Ward), but something is different this week. Ellen’s brother Warren (Bruch Thomas Reed), a school teacher who doesn’t see his parents as often as his sister, has come along.
Peggy suspects that something is up even during the car ride. Warren claims that he’s not at school because it’s a special holiday, but she doesn’t believe him. She tries to find out the truth—imagining the worst—but has little luck. As we watch the emotions play over the faces of the three, we, too, can sense that Ellen and Warren are hiding something and that family resentments go back decades, even though the scene seems completely ordinary. Thanks to Mortensen’s direction and the stellar acting, there’s barely a hint of the betrayal that already has taken place and that will resonate in retrospect.
The reason for Warren’s presence comes out at the restaurant, as what should be a pleasant luncheon turns into an inquisition—at least in Peggy’s opinion. Her children, especially Warren, are worried that she might harm, even kill, her husband, who is incapacitated and lies on the couch in pain all day. The elderly couple’s part-time caregiver has reported that Peggy spends the time feeding her husband watered-down gin and drinking with him, tried to smother him, and broke a whole set of dishes. The children want to find out if this is true.
Offended and feeling ganged-up on, Peggy at first denies the charges and calls the caregiver a “schizophrenic.” She also points out that there are some things in a marriage that are secret and belong only to the couple. She tries to enjoy her salmon Caesar salad, the same thing she has every week, and three rum and diet cokes but can’t eat much at all.
Pressed from both sides, though Ellen tries to be the peacemaker, Peggy eventually owns up, but the story she tells of mutual insults and abuse, what her husband wanted, and her own inability to follow through is infinitely sad more than dangerous. Still, Johnson throws us into a moral quagmire about what Ellen and Warren should do that both respects Peggy and protects both parents.
In this case, it’s pretty clear that they handled the situation badly, resulting in a scene at the restaurant and a breakdown between the siblings, as well as between mother and children, at the end. That’s partly because the show belongs to Thalken’s Peggy, who comes across not as an addled alcoholic but as someone who is fully in control of her faculties, even if she is inclined to needle her children and be irritating at times. Her lucidity makes her offsprings’ unilateral solution to the problem all the more painful, because any aging person can imagine something similar happening to him/her.
Reed’s Warren, on the other hand, seems less stable than his mother. He simmers with pent-up anger over the treatment of his father, at the same time as he wishes his parents had helped him. He also has secrets that may have cost him his position and reacts like a child by screaming when Peggy says she doesn’t love him anymore.
Montgomery’s Ellen (the role played by Thalken in the original production) is the bedrock of the family, despite her generally unhappy demeanor, which Peggy comments on. Having coped with the death of her husband from cancer and traveled to Italy, she finds solace in piano lessons and music in general.
While Barb is less fully developed, there’s a back story involving her mother that contributes to Peggy savoring her attention, and Ward does a fine job of bringing the overbearingly bubbly and solicitous waitress to life with just the right hint of condescension.
Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s scenic design and Josh Prisching’s lighting are serviceable, though the car (interior only) looks older than the year mentioned. The sound design by Melissa Schlesinger is fine, and no one is credited for the costumes.
Given the level of the script, direction, and acting, “Four Places” bodes well for the Den Theatre as a producer. With any luck, the show will be extended, and I can’t wait to see what’s next.