Next Act’s tragi-comedy about endgame
One day, if you haven’t already, you might have to take care of your aging parents as they took care of you. As your children will perhaps some day take care of you.
If you think any of that will come easy, you need to see Four Places
The opening show of Next Act Theatre’s abridged season, Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson’s Four Places, takes us to lunch with Peggy (Flora Coker) and her grown children, Ellen and Warren (Mary MacDonald Kerr and Mark Ulrich). Warren’s presence surprises Peggy and raises suspicion in her. Schoolteacher Warren usually doesn’t show when she’s around. This is a family with intimacy issues.
Things go from bad to worse; Ellen and Warren aren’t there for a jolly luncheon with mother. The nurse who cares for their invalid father has seen things — disturbing, dangerous things — that cast Peggy in a bad light. They need to find out the truth.
Truth is a slippery business in Four Places. Ellen and Warren’s motives for this lunch—and, even, their lives—are built upon a series of white lies and little evasions. The visceral, blunt Peggy blows them down like tissue paper. She causes Ellen, Warren and the audience to wonder at herson and daughter’s justifications.
Coker’s portrayal of the fiercely independent, manipulative Peggy is the play’s linchpin. Janus-like, she oscillates between the aggravating, manipulative old woman her children (sometimes rightly) see and the fierce, caring woman she remains as she clings to every scrap of independence. She knows it’s a losing battle, yet she fights to the to the last moments of the play.
At the play’s start, the siblings believe they are doing the right thing for their parents. But as the play goes on, that certainty crumbles. Ellen turns inward and Warren descends into a blind, pained rage. Their arguments and actions increasingly look like the easy way out.
It happens that their waitress, Barb, is the daughter of woman a Peggy suspects philandered with her husband years before. Laura Gray’s acting barely salvages that underdeveloped waitress, an unnecessary complication that seems designed only to justify Barb’s almost-daughterly relationship with Peggy. But Gray works with it, sparring with Warren in a way Ellen seems afraid to do and taking up Peggy’s cause without really knowing what the family is discussing. The presence of a “child” who dotes on her “mother” rather than enabling or opposing her, as Ellen and Warren do, is a nice touch, but the convoluted suspicion of the ages-ago affair weakens it.
Despite the weighty subject matter, comedy abounds in Four Places. Most of it comes from witty, sharp-tongued Peggy. She doesn’t mince words the way her children do.
The only downside to director David Cescarini’s production is that we don’t get to spend more time with the family. The play clocks in at a little over 85 minutes, with no intermission. So treat every minute as precious—something the characters and all of us might do well to remember.
Four Places runs through Oct. 10 at In Tandem’s Tenth Street Theatre, Next Act’s temporary home for the season. Tickets can be purchased online at Next Act’s website or at 414-278-0765.