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Theater Review: "At The Old Place"

Marcel Spears, Heidi Armbruster and Brenna Coates in La Jolla Playhouse’s world-premiere production of "At The Old Place."
Photo credit:
Jim Carmody

An aging magnolia tree overlooking the “old place” seems as weary, deserted, and perhaps even haunted as the 40ish woman who exhaustedly drags a suitcase up the walk and disappears inside in Rachel Bonds’ new play “At The Old Place,” in its world premiere through July 30 at La Jolla Playhouse.

The woman is Angie (Heidi Armbruster), who teaches poetry at a small northeastern college.

The titular house is outside Richmond, Virginia; it belonged to her long-estranged and recently deceased mother, and now has a “For Sale” sign in front. A small table and two chairs are in the front yard.

It isn’t entirely clear why Angie is here. All she seems to do is shut that door and disappear. Is she hiding from something? Does she just feel the pull of the past, now that part of that past is gone? She said something about being on a sabbatical and writing a paper, but there’s no evidence of that work going on.

The next evening, Angie opens the door and is surprised to find two 20-somethings occupying those chairs.

They are Will (Marcel Spears) and Jolene (Brenna Coates), who live down the street and work at the local Best Buy or its equivalent.

Jolene is complaining about her boss in colorfully vulgar terms. In fact, her conversation is dominated by those and by f-bombs. It’s not clear whether it’s a paucity of vocabulary or the huge chip on her shoulder that triggers the vulgarity barrage.

Will has some history to overcome: he’s gay, black, and was raised in a foster home with his brother Mike and “a bunch of other kids.”

He’s trying to figure out how to help Mike, who is in a jam. But Will approaches life with hope, rather than anger, so when Angie asks “What are you doing here?” he doesn’t take it as an insult, but gets the message and drags Jolene out with him. She says some untoward things and gives Angie a dirty look on the way out.

All three of these characters are living uncomfortably with the results of previous decisions and courses of action, underlined when Angie recites Frost’s classic poem “The Road Not Taken” (probably along with me and half the audience, as well: did everybody have to memorize that in grade school?).

It seems that Angie’s mom, “Mrs. L.” became quite friendly with Jolene and Will and offered the use of the property as a “sanctuary,” though it’s not clear why they need one.

Angie will warm to them as well, and the trio will drink together (playing a vulgar game while looped) and even learn from each other as they consider their next life moves.

Director Jaime Castañeda keeps the show moving. I wish he had also given the actors microphones. The Forum does not have the best sound system, to begin with, and Spears’ Will spent considerable time in a chair facing away from my seat on house left, leaving me and several friends in the same section wondering about some of his lines.

Armbruster’s seemingly lost Angie faces the most familiar problems. Her marriage is falling apart; she’s running from her extracurricular romance, and she’s supposed to write a paper while on sabbatical.

Coates’ no-holds-barred Jolene is brash and often funny, but her aggressiveness seems a little one-note and wears after a bit, even on BFF Will.

Will is the most interesting of the characters, perhaps because he seems both more rounded and grounded than the others. I wanted to know what would happen to Will.

There’s a fourth character in Harrison (Benim Foster), Angie’s apparently ex-lover, who drives nine hours in response to a scary email from her. Foster is convincing, but Harrison seems no more than a plot prop.

Roads taken cannot be untaken, so what happens next? It’s a question worth considering, even though I think Bond is a rewrite away from making this a fascinating exploration of the topic.

The details

“At The Old Place" plays through July 31, 2017, at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 pm.; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org