Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Michael Brosilow.
It’s been five years since the Den Theatre, Wicker Park’s popular home to numerous companies, produced a play of its own, but the drought is over. With Joel Drake Johnson’s Four Places, directed by Lia Mortensen, the theatre steps boldly back into the game. This taut, effective one-act, which unfolds in real time, takes us into the lives of a family as it confronts a crisis. At times hilariously funny and at others heartbreaking, Four Places provides an honest look at the love and the lies that make up most relationships.
Amy Montgomery and Bruch Reed play Ellen and Warren, the adult offspring of aging parents. Their father is very sick and constantly in pain, being cared for by their mother Peggy (Meg Thalken) and a nurse named Patty, from whom the children have received news that horrifies them: it appears that the old couple might be a danger to each other. Combined with longstanding concerns about the amount of alcohol their parents consume, this news spurs the siblings to action.
The entire play takes place from the moment they pick up their mother for what is usually her weekly luncheon with Ellen, through the meal itself, and home again. From the moment she sees her son, Peggy senses that something is amiss. The siblings, however, have already determined that they will not have the very serious discussion they know is needed until they are safely at the restaurant. This renders the opening car ride intensely (and occasionally comically) awkward, setting the tone for the lunch that follows. It’s the kind of conversation that no children ever want to have with their parents, the one that changes their relationship completely as the offspring finally put the need to keep the parents safe ahead of the knowledge of how much emotional pain they will likely cause in doing so. Sometimes it is as basic as taking away the car keys from an older person who simply can’t drive any longer; sometimes, as here, it is far more complicated.
Such conversations are very difficult to have and even more difficult to control. And that is part of Johnson’s intent here: his simple, realistic plot uncovers emotional dynamics that have long remained unspoken among these characters, pulling secrets and hidden lives out into the open. No one comes out of moments like this unscathed, and both Johnson and Mortensen know it. Her staging remains as focused as the writing as her cast endures this painful conversation. In a play with long, sedentary scenes, she puts her attention into the little things—an aborted movement here, a knowing glance there—as this family navigates these dangerous, uncharted waters.
The cast is wonderful. Montgomery does more with silence than many actors can achieve with long speeches, giving entire discourses with the look in her eyes. Reed, looking like a brooding Jamie Lannister, barely controls the temper that has caused Warren trouble in the past as he fights through the pain of the moment he’s caught in. And Thalken is marvelous as the confused alcoholic mother who knows something is up but doesn’t know the extent of it, trying to maintain control even as her life is being turned upside down. Rebekah Ward also appears as Barb, their regular waitress in this establishment, who has a soft spot for the old lady and gladly indulges her mid-day drinking, unaware of the issue that Ellen and Warren are here to resolve.
Mortensen, of course, has some help from a strong design team. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set is as perfectly realistic as the play’s plot. Josh Prisching’s lighting, also very true to life, works beautifully. And Melissa Schlesinger’s sound design, though a tad inconsistent—why do we not hear car doors close when we can hear the engine running?—also adds to the ultra-authentic nature of the scene.
The result is a small, contained, realistic slice of life, albeit a slice that is far less sweet than the dessert Peggy indulges in. By the time Warren excises the tension with a painful, angry, cathartic scream, Johnson and Mortenson have put the audience through a wringer, one that, despite its extremes, seems all too familiar. Like real life, it is both humorous and dark, often simultaneously. Like real life, its resolution is not perfectly sanguine or satisfying. Four Places is a glimpse into life as it is lived by people who could easily be us. It’s a powerful and complex emotional journey in less than an hour and a half, and it is a welcome return for Den Theatre.
Four Places is now playing at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, Chicago through June 30. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.