Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Life with Mother

Three for the road: Carole Monferdini, John Wojda and Kate Udall in Four Places.  Photos by Meghan Moore.
Joel Drake Johnson's Four Places (at the Merrimack Rep through November 7) has one of those deceptively simple titles that seem all too easily explained. At one level, the play's moniker bluntly refers to the fact that it occurs across four settings (a car interior, then a restaurant's waiting area, dining room, and ladies' room). But when one considers the script also features just four characters, one senses in its sobriquet a deeper, colder statement: the dysfunctional players of this desolate drama are always apart - always in four separate places - even when they're together.

And it's this sense of mutual isolation that Charles Towers' fine production honors, in its delicately grim way - under his direction, the characters, though seemingly all too familiar with each other's every flaw and failing, nevertheless float in a moral twilight zone in which nothing about any of them can ever be precisely pinned down.  The story spine of the script is so simple that it can be encapsulated in a sentence: the unhappy children of an unhappy marriage stage an intervention to prevent their mother from hurting - or possibly even killing - their father.  But the precise circumstances that brought them to this pass remain always slightly vague; the witness to Mom's actions may be unreliable (tellingly, she's called "schizophrenic"), said actions, even as described (half-smothering with a pillow), were aborted anyway, and perhaps the victim has been begging to die.  What Mom did, and what she knew, and when she did it and when she knew it, are all hard to parse precisely.  Not that Brother and Sis are any different - both of them have curiously unstable back stories, and it seems even the waitress who attends them may actually be a half-sibling, although then again, maybe she's not; we never know for sure.

I do want to say at this point, however, that most of the reviewers of Four Places have seemed quite confident about exactly what transpires in this streamlined, yet mysterious, little drama; indeed, Four Places may be the most widely - and blithely - misinterpreted local production I've come across in some time.  Jenna Scherer in the Herald, for instance, declared that its conflicts were "instantly recognizable in that all-American family way." Really? I'm not even exactly sure what said conflicts are.  But in the Globe, Sandy MacDonald likewise confidently intoned that Johnson's Mom "is a monster, of the garden-variety sort." Indeed, even at its Chicago premiere, Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones announced that Johnson had forged a world that was "thoroughly credible and recognizable and raw." Yeah, and that's thoroughly wrong.  (For the record, the print critics hardly had a corner on misperception in this case. The "Wicked Local" blog, for instance, insisted that "one chilling truth after another reveals itself in brittle pronouncements." Uh-huh.)

Sigh. Sometimes people ask why I write this blog.  Well, this is one reason why: I have the rare ability to accurately interpret plays! Although at least all these critics liked the show, even if they didn't understand it. (What that means, I think I'll leave intentionally vague, in the spirit of this particular script.)

But back to Four Places, the despairing theme of which, I think, is the impossibility of real connection - given our limited knowledge of each other - and yet the endless need for it, particularly within the (four) emotional walls of the family. It's more than possible that something serious did indeed go down between Mom and Dad; and so something serious must be done. And yet that action - or intervention - implies issues of judgment that not only play hacky-sack with parent-child dynamics, but require a kind of moral authority that no one in the play can legitimately claim.

All in the (extended) family - Kate Udall, Laura Latreille, Carole Monferdini, and John Wojda.
And at the same time, what seems clear from the text is that no, Mom is not a monster, of any variety; if anyone's a monster here, in fact, it's probably Dad; her description of his behavior, and his begging for his own death, are heart-rending, and we also believe her when she says she could never go through with assisted suicide (although she adds, with a hiss, "If this is any of your business!").  Indeed, in what counts as probably the play's core thematic statement, Mother goes further with her children: "Your dad and I actually have a life outside yours. We have a relationship that is not part, any part of who you are. We have our own little universe into which NO one else is invited - a secret life . . ." Yet tellingly, a moment later she's begging her daughter to reveal her own "secret life" and excoriating her son for his "little white lies;" Four Places is not so much a glimpse into American Gothic as Chicago's take on No Exit.

Although in the end, Johnson's play may be more poignant than despairing; for despite the many recriminations exchanged between this mother and her children, something like love still binds them, and something like reconciliation still seems possible between them. "I don't love you anymore!" Mom tells her judges as she retreats into her lonely home, but as she gazes back through the window, her offspring know different. "Jesus, those faces!" her daughter marvels. "Look - she still loves us."

It's a credit to Towers's uniformly excellent cast - John Wojda, Kate Udall, Carole Monferdini, and Laura Latreille - that such internally-contradictory moments are so precisely limned. This is another superb ensemble in a season crowded with them. And Johnson's play is certainly a worthy one - although at times it does seem to be marking time in its action as it works out its carefully balanced themes; it felt to me like a kind of stepping-stone play for a writer who may be testing wider, deeper waters. Or perhaps it's that director Towers has staged the script in almost too considered a manner; I felt that a few of the bombs dropped in the show should have detonated more loudly - or at least loudly enough to make it immediately clear why Mom must retreat to the ladies' room. And Towers seems unsure of precisely how to deploy Barb, the too-attentive waitress who may be Dad's illegitimate daughter; somehow the siren call of her sweetness, its "false" familial aspect, never came clear thematically. Still, this production counts as another feather in Merrimack's cap - a subtly-shaded gray feather, perhaps, but a beauty nonetheless.

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