At The Old Place

A forlorn woman drags a wheelie suitcase across the gravel drive.

Written by:
Lynne Friedmann
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A forlorn woman and the pull of an equally forlorn house present more mysteries than are solved in the world premiere of “At The Old Place,” at the La Jolla Playhouse.

We first meet middle-age, college poetry instructor Angie (Heidi Armbruster) as she wearily drags a wheelie suitcase noisily across the gravel driveway. Walking past the for-sale sign on the neglected lawn, she steps up to the porch and confronts a locked door. No problem. She makes a bee line to where a spare key is hidden in the yard. The house belonged to Angie’s deceased mother from whom she’s been bitterly estranged.

A short time later, twenty-something Jolene (Brenna Coates) and Will (Marcel Spears) stroll into the yard, sit on lawn chairs, produce beer and who knows what in Jolene’s doctored cola bottle and otherwise make themselves at home. They are no strangers to this patch of real estate thanks to a warm relationship with Angie’s late mother.

Will and Jolene, childhood chums and now co-workers at Best Buy, discuss the mundane and profane of their work day. Actually, Jolene does most of the expounding and it’s an earful. There are eight parts of speech in the English language, and Jolene managed to ascribe F-bombs to all of them.

An angry Angie confronts the squatters and needless to say things get off to a rocky start. But the young people continue to return to the yard again and again. Over time, and over large quantities of alcohol, the threesome share laughter, regrets, hopes and reveal a dark secret. What is clear is that each has a different coping method when faced with problems: Angie runs away, Jolene violently strikes back, and Will is able to forgive.

This is a fine introduction and story set-up, but at the conclusion of the one-act, 90-minute play this is about as far as it gets. Playwright Rachel Bonds has given us the solid bones of an intriguing story and characters we truly care about. A second act would help answer numerous questions left hanging about Angie’s career, her on-the-rocks marriage, a relationship (or not) with Harrison (Benim Foster) who drives nine hours in response to Angie’s plea for help as well as Will and Jolene’s future and the magnetic pull of the property.

So, once again, a forlorn woman drags a wheelie suitcase noisily across the gravel drive, this time away from the house. Fade to black.

The house that scenic designer Lauren Helpern has rendered is the real deal not a mere suggestion of an abode with oodles of mood-setting details: Overstuffed mail box, porch light left burning, drawn window blinds, peeling roof shingles, dead trees and scrubs, bare spots on the lawn through which milkweeds sprout and the aluminum watering pail under which the spare house key awaits the next needy occupant.

“At The Old Place” is directed by Playhouse Associate Artistic Director Jaime Castañeda; costume design by David Israel Reynoso and light design by Lap Chi Chu. The realistic nighttime sounds of crickets and flying insects (courtesy of sound designer Melanie Chen) might convince you a mosquito is flying around your head.

Lynne Friedmann

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