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Theatre Review (LA): Four Places by Joel Drake Johnson at Theatre Theatre

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Joel Drake Johnson’s Four Places is a riveting and disturbing little play that comes from Chicago. It features four outstanding actors, one of them extraordinary. The story involves a lunch in a claustrophobic booth at a restaurant where Mom (Anne Gee Byrd) and recently divorced daughter Ellen (Roxanne Hart) often go to enjoy the food and each other. But this time son Warren (Tim Bagley) comes along and soon we know something is not right with this picture. The result is a very disturbing play which challenges our belief in close family ties when what appears like a warm family gathering turns into a time of deception, lies, secrets, and moral questions.

The first thing to give away the true nature of this lunch is daughter Ellen’s morose look as they are driving to the restaurant. Brother Tim looks upset and has the look of a wounded animal set to pounce. Mom Peggy immediately senses something is afoot since Tim doesn’t usually attend these lunches. After much questioning and many trips to the ladies’ room where Peggy is finding blood in her urine, we finally find out that they want to put Mom in a home and separate her from their father. What is revealed is spousal abuse though it is never clear who is abusing whom—does Mom want to kill Dad, or is it that Dad wants to be put out of his misery? Both parents are alcoholic so anything is possible.

The direction by Robin Larsen is impeccable, showing sensitivity and the ability to let the play enfold slowly but with mounting tension. Tim Bagley and Roxanne Hart are excellent as the plotting and concerned kids. They are full of their own personal conflicts totally outside the conflict with their mother—Ellen has her divorce to contend with and Warren has a secret scandal at school that has led to his being fired. Anne Gee Byrd has the most complex character and pulls off all the needed emotional zigzags that the character requires. She is at once terrified, angry, deceitful, a liar, heartbreaking, and very vulnerable. She gives what is sure to be an award-winning performance.

Four Places has had quite a run at Theatre Theatre but is coming back for two more weekends, Aug 19 through the 29th. This is a production by a fairly new company, Rogue Machine, which is proving itself to be one of the best in Los Angeles.

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