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Regional Reviews: San Diego

At the Old Place
La Jolla Playhouse
Review by Bill Eadie | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Guys and Dolls

Heidi Armbruster
Photo by Jim Carmody
La Jolla Playhouse has specialized in presenting new work. In doing so, there are productions that are immediate hits or misses, but most are somewhere in between. In this world premiere production, Rachel Bonds' At the Old Place is a special kind of in-between, a character study that may delight some and leave others scratching their heads.

The old place in the title is a run-down ranch-style home located in a decaying neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia. As the play opens, Angie (Heidi Armbruster) arrives with a suitcase, finds a key under a watering can, opens the door, and walks in. Angie's mother had lived in the house, but after her death her brother had an estate sale and put the house on the market. Angie had little knowledge of these developments, because she had not been in contact with her family for quite a number of years.

Angie soon discovers that two young people from the neighborhood have been using lawn chairs as a place to hide away, drink, and help each other to cope with less-than-happy lives. Will (Marcel Spears) is parentless, and Jolene's (Brenna Coates) mother works two jobs. Jolene is mouthy (the language borders on R-rated stuff), while Will secretly loves poetry.

Angie loves poetry, too. In fact, she teaches poetry at a small college in central Massachusetts. She's on sabbatical and has been traveling in Africa with her research scientist husband. She, too, has come to the house to hide away and try to figure out her life. In the process, she goes through some dark moments, and in one of those she emails a colleague at her college. The colleague (Benim Foster) becomes so concerned that he drives to Richmond to rescue her. But Angie is pretty ambivalent about being rescued.

In fact, Angie is pretty ambivalent about a lot in her life, at least so it seems. She does bond with the young adults on the lawn, but it's an uneasy bond, like, to some degree, the bond Will and Jolene have with each other. The one thing that excites Angie is bringing poetry to Will's life, and, eventually, grudgingly, to Jolene's.

In character studies, the arc of the character's journey is paramount. So the fact that Ms. Bonds' characters have such small arcs is a cause for puzzlement. And, it's ironic that Angie's love of modernist poets such as Robert Frost (her recitation of "The Road Not Taken" is a high point) and Frank O'Hara doesn't keep her from tolerating, even celebrating, the postmodern lives of her two millennial squatters.

Director Jaime CastaƱeda appears to have brought Ms. Bonds' play to life as she intended. The large playing space in the Mandell Weiss Forum has plenty of room for a realistic-looking house, the yard, and a large and somewhat decaying magnolia tree (Lauren Helpern did the scenic design, while Lap Chi Chu created the lighting design). David Israel Reynoso's costumes and Melanie Chen's sound design both seem in sync with the play. The actors inhabit their roles and play what amounts to realism with more humor than one might expect. Except there's nothing about any of them that make me think they belong in Richmond, Virginia.

The question is, who will care about these characters? Clearly, some will, but also some won't. And I wouldn't care to venture an opinion about who will be in which camp.

At the Old Place, through July 31, 2017, at the La Jolla Playhouse campus, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla, CA. Show times are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 7pm; and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. For tickets, phone (858) 550-1010 or visit

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