Scribe Joel Drake Johnson’s compact, potent new work, “Four Places,” takes place in real time, as a middle-age brother and sister take their mother to lunch. Think of it as the “High Noon” of familial confrontation — with increasingly bated breath we await inevitable revelations and their consequences. This is a fully involving, frequently funny and ultimately disturbing play, the kind of piece that creeps up on you, beginning with purposefully halting ordinariness and then digging deeply and darkly into the emotional fray of its all-too-real characters.
In its world premiere at Chicago’s Victory Gardens, “Four Places” features an extraordinary performance from Mary Ann Thebus as Peggy, the Midwestern mom who knows something’s up when her widowed daughter Ellen (Meg Thalken) shows up for their lunch date with Peggy’s divorced son Warren (Peter Burns) in tow, despite the fact that he’s a teacher and it’s a school day.
The siblings carefully avoid their hidden agenda in the car ride to the restaurant. They clearly prefer the relative security of a public place, hoping that will restrain their mother’s certain negative reaction as they query her on reports about what happens between her and their frail father behind closed doors.
The restaurant setting does indeed breed restraint, and Johnson and director Sandy Shinner milk the comic effects of public manners — the characters are always having to lower their voices, to contain their outbursts even as secrets emerge. The presence of a busy-body waitress (Jennifer Avery) adds to the humor, getting craftily, if not always convincingly, built into the revelations.
Ultimately, Johnson provides a sufficient doozy of a backstory — involving a mixture of pent-up anger, intense co-dependency and alcohol — to justify the anticipation.
Thebus captures a remarkable, and completely believable emotional journey. Her Peggy starts out innocent but also curiously defensive, and then appears fragile and even pathetic under her kids’ interrogation, escaping at times into the rest room (the four places of the title are the car, the restaurant waiting area, dining room and ladies’ room). Finally, in the car ride home she reveals — still with shocking Midwestern restraint — such terrifying glimpses of buried fury that she convincingly verges on the villainous. And even then, Peggy somehow remains still sympathetic, an image of an aging woman clinging desperately, and unsuccessfully, to her dignity.
Shinner gets the pace, the tonal balance and the hyper-naturalistic style of all this just right, and Thalken (who’s also terrific) and Burns (who’s a bit stiff) ably display the raw nerves and complex emotional undercurrents Johnson consistently exposes.
Well deserving of a future life, “Four Places” is a work that really gets under the skin and stays there, making it feel like there must be a touch of the gothic, and of the tragic, almost everywhere we look.