The four people in Rachel Bonds’ new play At the Old Place may not be anybody you bump into a lot. In Jaime Castaneda’s staging for the La Jolla Playhouse, though, they’re worth the 90 minutes of pondering.
In a scraggly urban front yard, two neighborhood kids hang out as they always have, kidding around about their barren post-high school lives. We know there’s somebody in the house – earlier we watched a mousy, thirty-something woman grope for a key under a flowerpot and then drag her roller suitcase inside – but they don’t. The nice old lady who has lived there all their lives died a few weeks earlier. As the kids get louder, the door suddenly opens. Imagine everybody’s surprise.
It doesn’t require much imagination. The boy tries to explain, the girl is surly and the woman just seems jet-lagged. The specifics are random and vague. There’s a feeling of hopeless incomprehension. The kids insist on leaving, the woman protests in distracted fashion.
The whole thing feels like a conversation overheard in a waiting room somewhere. Not quite interesting but hard to ignore as the stories congeal. The woman is Angie, the old lady’s daughter, long estranged and on leave from teaching poetry in some Massachusetts college. Will, pudgy and sweet-tempered, is learning how to be a gay black guy; Jolene is a hair-trigger misfit restlessly awaiting some alternatives.
Surprisingly, they all three begin to relate. Each has mother issues: foster parents, working moms in second marriage, Angie’s mistake baby long gone to adoption. And each of them faces the complications of being attractive in the relationship marketplace reality: Jolene has exploded at mismanagement in her retail hell job and quit. Angie having wandered away from her husband, still in Africa doing research, the campus is wondering what’s up with her. And Will’s older brother, who beat up a couple of college boys taunting Will in a bar, now awaits trial in jail without bail.
None of them can really help the others but each wants to. And they share some quality of character that makes them worth caring about. And possibly even counting on.
They speak with vividly authentic voices that ring free even though the mundane slog of the story. The clang of the slang is invigorating and contributes to the degree of interest this extraordinary play stirs. And its minimalism promises durability.
Castaneda has done a splendid job with the staging, handling even casual crudity with a delicate and illuminating touch. It’s not unusual to find a slice-of-life piece of this nature directed with a paternal fondness that hugs away the jagged edges. Here, instead, the director’s faith in the author’s vision makes the show hum with likelihood.
Acting honors are evenly spread among the four members of the cast, certainly including Benim Foster as a compassionate but frustrated messenger from Angie’s academic world. Heidi Armbruster uses a mist of mystery to focus Angie’s sink of indecision and coordinate, if not illuminate, her motivation.
Marcel Spears is gentle and open as Will, a probable survivor nevertheless, or perhaps because. And Brenna Coates fairly vibrates with repressed life-force, illustrating a fierce fighter still learning the subtleties of her weaponry.
Lauren Helpern’s set is some slight justification for the invention of Astroturf but David Israel Reynoso’s costumes are so thoroughly at home that any of these actors could disappear instantly into a passing urban crowdscape.
The music tags between scenes, possibly the work of sound designer Melanie Chen but impeccably selected and timed in a fashion that suggests the director’s touch, is yet another facet of this engrossing, very satisfying play and production.
(Continues in the Mandell Weiss Forum, UCSD, at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; at 7 p.m. Sundays, and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through July 31, 2017. )