Thursday, July 13, 2017

La Jolla’s “At the Old Place” makes world premiere.

At a recent interview in our local press Rachel Bonds, playwright of “At the Old Place” now making its world premiere, is quoted as saying: “I usually write the thing and then say, ‘What is this play about?”… “It usually takes me a little while to figure out.”

I suspect, but really don’t know that in this new play on the stage of the La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum through July 30th, that Angie (Heidi Ambruster) hasn’t figured it out either. But here she is back at her ‘old place’.

Heidi Armbruster as Angie in "At the Old Place at La Jolla, Mandell Weiss Forum
I have to admit that this reviewer, as well felt the same way on leaving the theatre. There are too many whys and not enough because. Assumptions are in order.

We do know that Angie is on Sabbatical from her teaching job. Her mother is recently deceased. Did she come back to morn the los of her mother or all her losses over the years? That would make sense. But?

We also know that she left home, shall we say, under questionable conditions. In retrospect, does she have some regrets?

Recently she left her husband who was in Africa where he was doing research. She just walked out on him and here she is; small suitcase in tow, key under watering can and empty house. At some point she learned that her estranged brother has the house up for sale. Questions?

All of the remaining furniture inside, save a place to sleep and a winged back chair, was gone in an estate sale. She took the chair outside to sit on, sometimes sleep off a binge or two, and added it to an already existing wrought iron table and two chairs.

Conjecturing again that she just needed a place to camp out until she gathered her skirts together and decided to get on with her life that she chose her girlhood home, where again, she didn’t seem to have a treasure-trove of good memories. She did muster up one story about a flying saucer.

Heidi Armbruster and Benim Foster in "At the Old Place"
She also sent off an urgent email to a fellow teacher, Harrison (Benim Foster), to come to her rescue. They teach poetry at a college somewhere in middle Massachusetts and assuming, had a relationship of sorts. But that 10-minute encounter bombed when she couldn’t really tell him what he wanted to hear.

More importantly though, she came face to face with two neighborhood (?) younger, (think twenties) folks hanging out on the front lawn of the property. They seemed to be having their own party. They knew more about her mother than she and spoke fondly of her. But they also have a you -know- what -load of baggage themselves.

Marcel Spears and Brenna Coates
After some suspicious time and curious looks, the two manage to bond enough to let her in on their conversations. Most of it centers on Jolene (Brenna Coates), whose mouth is bigger and louder than a street fighter’s. Her mother has two jobs to keep the lights on and she is playing dangerously close to losing her job. Coates is a force to be reckoned. What we do know of her is just the tip of the iceberg.

Then there’s Will (Marcel Spears); African American, gay, loves poetry and was brought up in Faster Care.  He’s quiet and soft- spoken and much more, as they say, a person of interest; one that you want to know more about.

They both work at ‘Best Buy’? He is facing several crises in his life. He is being discriminated for being gay and on another serious topic, might be sent of to jail if he is proven guilty of a theft he claims he did not do.

At some point in their interactions some very funny repartee (most of which was inaudible to yours truly) took place, and that seemed to put them all on an equal footing, at least for a while. Will loves poetry and they all listened intently as Angie read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”.

We all have regrets. As Donald Trump, Jr. recently admitted, “If I had to do it again, I might have done things differently.”

If we dig deep enough maybe we can get to the bottom of Ms. Bond’s new play. Maybe instead, and I quote, “I know it’s about something. And I just have to trust that it is.”

Accordingly she was inspired by her own grandmother’s house in Richmond, Va. close to where the play takes place. And here we are “At the Old Place”.

Scenic designer Lauren Helpern shows us a dated rust colored ranch style/bungalow on what might have been a decent piece of property in past years. Now the old neighborhood and house have gone to seed.

Marcel Spears, Heidi Ambruster and Brenna Coates In "At the Old Place" 
The house has a long balcony of sorts with a black wrought iron rail and steps on either side. There is a crunchy something on one side of the driveway (?) of the house and some overgrown growth on the other side.

The mailbox is overstuffed with advertising and never removed or thrown away. Catching the eyes of those on one side of the Forum, a semi in the round theatre, is an old magnolia tree. Mention is made of that.

There is some green turf on the ground with a For Sale sign she immediately removes to the side of the house. Old empty bottles of the drink of the day land on the grass before they are taken off.

Hats off to Ms. Helpern and those pesky details that really make a difference. There is nothing iffy about her set. What you see is pretty real. Adding to that, Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design shines through from the windows in the home and to the changing days. Lights also shine on the tree giving it a bit of luster from my point of view. Melanie Chen’s occasional music adds to the overall feel of time.

Would that those in Ms. Bonds’ play had the same depth of character that the details surrounding Helpern’s set show, yours truly might have been more invested in what was happening in their lives. Following her characterizations, their roads taken or not, are very ambivalent.

The one exception is Spears’ Will. He seems to be a survivor and with a bit of TLC could turn his life around. One sort of has the idea that Angie wanted to do that. If so, cheers!

Director Jamie Castañeda and his four cast members do as much with Bond’s play as can be expected, given her expectations. One suggestion however, both Ambruster and Spears need to project more especially when backs are toward the audience. For that matter body mics would be appropriate. 

I found Bonds play to be less than satisfying with too many unanswered questions and characters I mostly don’t care about.

Yet as I contemplate it over and over in my mind, something must have struck a nerve for it to continue to have those lingering questions. I’ll figure it out, or not on my end. In the meantime you be the judge.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through July30th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Phone: 858.550.1010
Production Type: Drama
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive La Jolla, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $35.00
Venue: Mandell Weiss Forum
Photo: Jim Carmody


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