Awkwardness Takes Over Four Places

The setup:

Ethical questions abound in the drama Four Places. An adult brother and sister cope with two aging parents, though the father is never seen on stage, and the problems presented by their decline are compounded by reliance on alcohol.

The play takes place with the siblings driving to and from a luncheon with their mother. We discern what is going on in the lives of the parents indirectly, from the son as reported to him by a caregiver, so we are compelled to piece out the truth as best we can.

The execution:

The mother, Peggy, is portrayed with such grace, beauty, elegance and charm by Cristine McMurdo-Wallis that my sympathies were with her. She may lie a little, but drinkers do that, and she can hold it like a trooper, as even the adult kids admit. Peggy adds to what the care-giver has related, corroborating some highly unseemly behavior, but explaining her own motivations. Or course, Peggy is hardly a reliable witness.

The daughter Ellen is played by Luisa Amaral-Smith, and she embodies the pain of a daughter forced to choose sides in the midst of a crisis. The son Warren, portrayed by Jack Young, has anger management problems demonstrated far too clearly in this 90-minute session, as the adult children, with ostensibly good intentions, connive against their mother.

As written by playwright Joel Drake Johnson, and as directed by Kenn McLaughlin, Young has no choice but to be distinctly unpleasant, and he does this admirably. As the reason for the lunch seeps out, amid numerous visits to the ladies room, other fragments of information are parceled out, invoking our sympathy - though they're largely unrelated to the issues at hand. The waitress, well played by Lisa Thomas-Morrison, has a tangential connection to this dysfunctional family, but that is simply to add much-needed flavor. The plot is so miniscule that I won't divulge what little there is.

The verdict:

The play is awkwardness itself - it begins with deliberate awkwardness as it's clear on the ride to lunch that there is no real warmth or communication between mother and children, just competitive hostility and familial duty. It's awkward because we lack adequate information to make a considered moral choice. It's awkward because the tactics adopted by the children seem clumsy and unrealistic, including leaving the mother alone after a day of grueling intensity.

The technical news is brighter - the lighting by Christina R. Giannelli works wonders to delineate areas as needed, and the minimalist set by Liz Freeze is highly effective and enhanced by a simple but imaginative backdrop.

Four Places is worth seeing for the extraordinary, sensitive and enchanting performance of McMurdo-Wallis as the mother, but she and the waitress are rays of light in a cavern of darkness.

Four Places runs through May 22 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For tickets, call 713-527-0123.

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Jim Tommaney