Four Places

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Photo Source: John P. Flynn
The setting is a Chicago suburb. The occasion is a weekday lunch for mom at her favorite restaurant, courtesy of her two adult children. Yet beyond the amusing eccentricities of this spry septuagenarian and the circuitous small talk of her oversolicitous offspring, there's far more to this ostensibly routine get-together than meets the eye. Joel Drake Johnson's savvy and sensitive drama gets edgier by the minute, and in director Robin Larsen's riveting West Coast–premiere rendition, it's a funny and heart-wrenching vehicle for four astonishingly effective actors.

Anyone who has experienced tense family gatherings masked by superficial cheer will instantly recognize the subtext of these conversations. The mother, Peggy (Anne Gee Byrd), clearly knows something is up and slowly sheds her pretenses of social grace and ignorance. A nosy, intrusive waitress (an amusing Lisa Rothschiller) feigns concern for her "favorite" customer but merely exacerbates the festering conflicts. Smart-cookie Peggy doesn't buy the explanation of her schoolteacher son Warren (Tim Bagley) that he is able to attend the lunch due to an unusual school holiday. Meanwhile, the guilt-ridden emotions of divorcée daughter Ellen (Roxanne Hart) are sufficiently thick to be cut by a dinner knife. What emerges is a harrowing portrait of codependency and the fears and challenges of old age, including shocking revelations best kept a surprise.

Byrd's characterization is a powerhouse. Like a lioness fiercely fighting to manage the lives of herself and her ailing spouse, Byrd creates a devastating mix of fear, defiance, despair, and lacerating wit. From her early moments onstage, as a pampered parent playing the old-lady role to the hilt, through her progression to a desperate matriarch guarding her turf, Byrd delivers a performance of great range, depth, and emotional weight.

Hart and Bagley are likewise marvelous. The pain of Hart's character is constantly evident, yet the actor finds ways to enrich the role, as a woman trying to balance her steely convictions with the heartbreak of her mission. Warren's difficulty in carrying out the day's plan is also evident, as Bagley gives the character a palpable sense of weakness. Rogue Machine's magnificent third-season opener sets a new artistic bar for the adventurous company.

Presented by Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A. May 14–July 3. Various times. (Dark June 14–19.) (323) 960-4424.