Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
(left to right) Meg Thalken, Bruch Reed and Amy Montgomery \ Photo by Michael Brosilow.
by Conor McShane
It’s amazing how different a quiet car ride can feel. Joel Drake Johnson’s 2008 play FOUR PLACES, the first show produced by the Den Theatre itself in about five years, begins and ends with its characters in a car, mostly not talking, punctuating the silence with banal observations. However, when we first meet Peggy (Meg Thalken) and her adult children Ellen (Amy Montgomery) and Warren (Bruch Reed), their quiet trip to the restaurant was met with plenty of knowing laughter from the audience, whereas their return trip prompted mostly uncomfortable silence.
Given what happens in between these two car rides, that silence was more than understandable. Ellen picks up Peggy for their regular lunch date, with the addition of Warren, a teacher who claims he has the day off for a school holiday. Warren’s presence makes Peggy uneasy, priming her for a confrontation. Most of the play takes place in the restaurant, where Warren and Ellen attempt to navigate a very difficult subject with their mother, under the overly watchful eye of their server Barb (Rebekah Ward), who may have the worst sense of professional boundaries of any server in history. The ensuing conversation, in which Peggy attempts to convince her kids that there are some things that simply need to stay between two people, grows more and more fraught, with buried resentments and unsavory secrets bubbling to the surface.
The setup is fairly boilerplate American family drama stuff, with hidden traumas arising and everyone living with their own unarticulated pain. What helps the play rise above its well-worn trappings are the carefully honed details in Johnson’s script and the stellar acting across the board. Thalken, in particular, makes a meal of her character, alternately pitiable and manipulative, casually critical of her kids while remaining defensive towards her own choices. A mid-play monologue in which Peggy describes a particular fight with her husband rings especially, movingly true, the dispute starting out over petty, insignificant details before spinning out into something much bigger. Montgomery and Reed give more internal performances, their struggle with the tough decision they’re forced to make registering in each loaded glance. Ward adds some welcome comic relief, punctuating the tense moments with her overly familiar cheeriness, even as some of Barb’s actions strained believability for me. By having the play unfold in real time, Johnson locks us into this family’s struggle, not giving us any opportunity for escape. By the end, there’s no happy resolution, and it’s unclear whether or not these wounds will ever fully heal.
As the evening unfolded, I couldn’t help thinking about what FOUR PLACES is trying to say on a deeper level. As someone who has not yet had to deal with elderly parents, I can only imagine how difficult and painful the transition from cared-for to caretaker can be, watching those who raised you lose their faculties and their autonomy. And the play feels well-observed in that struggle. Johnson doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of the situation, the fact that there is no outcome that won’t cause its share of pain. But the play can’t help but feel somewhat surface-level, an uncomfortable and intimate look at the difficulties of navigating a relationship with aging parents, but I’m still unsure if it’s saying much beyond that. Even so, there’s a lot of great craft on display, from the performances as directed by ensemble member Lia Mortensen, to Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s realist set design, to Josh Prisching’s subtle lights, and of course Johnson’s precise dialogue. That may be enough to make FOUR PLACES worth catching, just be prepared for a bumpy ride.