Four Places Victory Gardens Biograph Theater

The same week Chicago playwright Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer for August: Osage County, a harrowing look at small-town family dysfunction, Victory Gardens premiered Four Places by Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson, a harrowing look at small-town family dysfunction. This hardly signals a new trend; American theater’s been obsessed with the insular toxicity of the nuclear family for at least the last half century. But over the years our nation’s playwrights seem to have become less and less capable of shaping that dynamic into rigorous, potent theater. Compare Sam Shepard’s 1979 Buried Child—where the death of an infant sends a family along a masterful dramatic arc to utter ruin—with David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, in which the grieving parents of a dead boy process their precious feelings for two and a half hours. Even August: Osage County, which makes for a gripping evening—especially in Steppenwolf’s inspired production—is ultimately a showcase for tangentially related family meltdowns. It’s more a display than a play.

Four Places is an exception: a meticulously structured work that captures a decades-long history of paralyzing family resentments, depleted affections, and sublimated cruelties in a single, uninterrupted 90-minute scene. With excruciating patience, Johnson lets two middle-aged siblings and their elderly mother lead one another—with the best intentions—to a place where forgiveness, understanding, and even love may no longer be possible. Johnson’s script deserves a Pulitzer at least as much as Letts’s did, although you wouldn’t know it from watching Victory Gardens’ engaging but overly cautious production.

The action takes place on what should be a happy day for Peggy, a failing but aggressively chipper septuagenarian who shares her home with a dying husband, using watered-down gin to calm his agonies and keep herself from coming apart. Once a week Peggy’s daughter, Ellen, takes her to lunch at a local restaurant where Peggy delights in the fawning affection of their regular waitress, Barb. It’s the kind of affection Ellen couldn’t muster even if her mother tipped her handsomely.

But from the moment Peggy takes her place in Ellen’s car to head to lunch, she knows something’s up. Her son, Warren—a schoolteacher who should be at work—is in the backseat. As they ride to the restaurant, forced cheerfulness, miscommunications, and tortured silences show a family worn down by obligatory intimacy.

At the restaurant, Warren and Ellen question Peggy about her life with their father. It seems Peggy’s housekeeper has called Warren with concerns. Peggy, she claims, has been saying mean things to the old man and smashed a whole cupboard full of dishes. They both drink too much. Peggy’s defense is ironclad, if heartbreaking: how is any of that different from what the children witnessed growing up? But as Warren continues to probe, quickly dispensing with euphemistic niceties, it becomes clear that, hobbled by infirmity and stewing in intractable rancor, Peggy and her husband may have become dangers to each other. Peggy quickly realizes that her kids aren’t treating her to lunch—they’re putting her on trial.

Johnson’s carefully observed drama is full of subtle, telling details that evoke the most familiar and discomfiting aspects of family relations. He sends his characters into such ethically troubled waters that halfway through the play it’s hard to imagine how anyone will emerge without gaping wounds to the soul. Johnson’s only structural mistake is to spread the action out across “four places” (which in fact are only two: Ellen’s car and the interior of the restaurant), when the play would achieve an even greater efficiency and intensity if it took place entirely over lunch.

With such a strong script, this Victory Gardens world premiere should be a knock-out, especially considering the talented cast. Meg Thalken and Peter Burns make excellent foils as Ellen and Warren, the emotionally exhausted sister and brother, clinging to the roles of peacemaker and silent witness they were likely assigned as children. Mary Ann Thebus expertly orchestrates Peggy’s warring impulses—to flee, attack, belittle, trivialize—into a compelling, maddening, tragic figure whose life is being pulled out from under her. The supremely talented Jennifer Avery tries to make sense of Barb’s smothering devotion to Peggy, but she’s stuck in the only role Johnson hasn’t fully developed.

And yet veteran Victory Gardens director Sandy Shinner pulls every punch she can to reduce Johnson’s wallop of a play to a firm, avuncular slap. The first half hour is played almost entirely for laughs, as the fussbudget mother drives her adult children back into adolescent sulkiness. Shinner clings to this comedic tone even as the darker truths begin to emerge. When Ellen asks her mother point blank if she tried to kill their dad, the moment’s played for a chuckle.

Shinner overlooks the importance of Four Places‘ key animating event: before the action of the play starts, Ellen and Warren have already made arrangements that will rob their mother of her autonomy and most of her dignity. As they drive Peggy to the restaurant, they know they’ve grievously betrayed her. This knowledge should give the play an uncomfortable, even menacing edge from its first moments. But for too much of the play’s first half, the only apparent discomfort onstage is a generalized awkwardness between a mother and her grown children.

In essence the production’s foundation is missing, necessitating a forced shift in tone from light comedy to not-quite-dark-enough tragedy somewhere around the halfway mark. The play’s finale, which should knock the air out of our lungs and send the characters into emotional oblivion, ends up leaving us with nothing more than the sort of bad taste that a good night’s sleep will eliminate. It’s a shame—a script this potent has a right to disturb.v