Driven to family dysfunction
Merrimack Rep’s ‘Four Places’ rides along on its odd but engaging characters
LOWELL — Ordinary mother or monster? That’s one question lurking behind Joel Drake Johnson’s familial dramedy “Four Places,’’ enjoying a piquant East Coast premiere at Merrimack Rep.
Middle-aged siblings Ellen and Warren — a psychologist and teacher, respectively — have come to take their mother, Peggy, to lunch. Some tension expressed in the car prior to pickup, including a stream of expletives on Warren’s part, suggests that the outing may be more fraught than it would appear on the surface. On the drive over to Peggy’s favorite restaurant, this seemingly functional senior citizen reveals herself to be a bit of a kook, as well as a tart-tongued underminer. “You need a hearing aid, Warren,’’ she needles her son as he struggles to hear from the back seat. (In Bill Clarke’s four-part design, the “four places’’ include a realistic car interior as well as two restaurant settings and a ladies’ room where Peggy retreats to regroup.)
As Peggy recounts a recent dustup with her home aide (she deplores the purchase of economy-size ketchup), it seems increasingly probable the get-together is shaping up to be an intervention. Are her children intent on easing her into a home?
Not quite. Johnson exhibits a masterly restraint in letting the clues accrue. He takes his time revealing the existence of a fourth, unseen member of the family. Once settled in the neutral ground of the restaurant, where Peggy (played by Carol Monferdini) is coddled by Barb (Laura Latreille), an over-solicitous waitress, Warren finally alludes to their real concern: Peggy’s treatment of their invalid father, left incapacitated by a lifelong history of alcoholism. It’s bad enough that she enables him, drinking along; they’re worried that the horrendous arguments that colored their childhood may have escalated a notch.
Warren, a passive-aggressive bundle of tics (which John Wojda overplays a bit), tries to frame the question but ultimately leaves it to Ellen (Kate Udall), who maintains a stoic control of her emotions. “So, Mom,’’ she finally says, “have you tried to kill Dad?’’
It’s a shocking prospect, not dispelled by their mother’s muted response: “No. . . . I guess, yes, sort of.’’
With this play, selected and sensitively staged by Merrimack’s artistic director, Charles Towers, Johnson teases out the roots of family dysfunction in fresh and insightful ways. Leave to Albee the showy eruptions of a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ Johnson’s focus is on the loaded interstices that linger between fragments of relatively polite discourse. It may not surprise you to learn that Barb’s relationship to this family unit is far from tangential, though how close it comes is left a mystery.
“Some things, some things, Warren, are strictly our business,’’ Peggy warns Warren, defensively. “Your dad and I actually have a life outside of yours.’’
If only the demarcations could be so neatly drawn! Peggy may imagine herself a model of maternal solicitude (she attributes her children’s success, or lack thereof, to the efficacy of surreptitious doses of holy water), but yes, she is a monster, of the garden-variety sort. With Monferdini bravely and brilliantly excavating the twists and turns of Peggy’s self-justifying thought processes, she emerges as an American original — and also an ageless archetype.
Sandy MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.