The hidden agenda of ‘Four Places’

 

Meg Thalken, Bruch Reed and Amy Montgomery in 'Four Places' at The Den Theatre.' (Michael Brosilow photo)
Meg Thalken, Bruch Reed and Amy Montgomery in ‘Four Places’ at The Den Theatre. (Michael Brosilow photo)

4 stars

Theatergoers who prefer their dramas as real and affecting as everyday life should run to see this extraordinary production, now in its final performances at the Den Theatre.

Joel Drake  Johnson’s 80-minute one-act which plays out in real time, speaks to every member of the audience, but particularly to those between ages 40 and 65.

Smartly and perceptively directed by Lia Mortensen, a fine actor, herself,  she expertly guided a gifted, four member ensemble as they breathe life into their characters and avoid artificial schmaltz.

Eleven years ago Johnson’s heartbreaking, emotionally stunning play premiered at Chicago’s Victory Gardens. This revival production is every bit as poignant and passionate as the original. What makes the play particularly powerful is the intimacy of the Den’s upstairs 2B Studio venue. The actors are never more than a few feet from the audience, allowing this compelling, sometimes caustic, characters to reach into the hearts of its audience.

The story is about a bitter confrontation and intervention between a mother and her two middle-aged children.

Peggy and her widowed daughter, Ellen, have a weekly lunch date at the same local eatery. They’re always seated in Barb’s section, a chatty waitress who has a special, protective fondness for Peggy.

On this particular day, the dynamics change when Peggy’s 40-year-old son, Warren, unexpectedly joins them. From the beginning of the play, something unspoken between the two siblings creates a tension that you can cut with a knife.

As the hour unfolds, the audience gradually discovers the secrets and lies that these family members have kept hidden, and they learn what this mediation is all about.

The four places of the title are the car, the restaurant, the waiting room of the eatery and diner’s restroom, all wonderfully and modestly created by scenic designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec, assisted by Milo Bue.

Melissa Schlesinger’s detailed sound design along with Josh Prisching’s area lighting perfectly help delineate each of the four locales.

The cast is absolutely magnificent. Every actor in this ensemble production belongs to Actor’s Equity. Affiliation in this professional guild often guarantees a stellar production, and this staging is no exception. Each of these  actors has performed at every major Chicago area theatre.

Meg Thalken, the senior member of this brilliant ensemble, is sheer perfection as Peggy. With her upswept hair and her handbag clutched in a death grip, Thalken is completely believable as this complicated, conflicted mother.

At first Peggy seems innocent, although she’s suspicious as to why Warren is suddenly joining Ellen and herself for lunch. It’s a weekday and her son should be in school teaching, but, for some vague reason, Warren has invited himself along.

As information unfolds and emotions peeled away, Peggy remains a sympathetic character, an aging woman fiercely trying to hang on to her dignity and independence.

Amy Montgomery is superb as Ellen. Together with the always masterful Bruch Thomas Reed, as Warren, these two siblings plot, palter, bitterly plead and run the gamut of emotions, from guilt to indignation as they pry information from their mother and attempt to sensitively reveal their plans for her future.

The bumpy road to their hidden agenda digs deeply, exposing buried secrets dealing with aging, disease, alcoholism, pent-up resentments and coping with the inevitable.

Rebekah Ward is both clever and comical as Barb the busybody waitress who’s just a little too familiar with her customers.

One of the highlights of this production is the long car ride during which very little is said, but the faces of these three actors speak volumes.

The Den Theatre’s excellent revival of Joel Drake Johnson’s poignant one-act drama is sometimes searing, often humorous and ultimately heartbreaking.

The show, the Den Theatre’s return to producing its own plays and musicals, is a must-see.

DETAILS: “Four Places” continues through June 30, 2019 at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, Chicago. Running time: 80 minutes. For tickets and other information call (773) 697-3830 or visit The Den theatre.

Colin Douglas

For more shows visit TheaterInChicago.

 

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