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Play along with Peggy 

Is it any coincidence that A.R. Gurney's existential comedy The Fourth Wall is staged at a local church?

click to enlarge REDECORATE OR DIE :  Peggy, played by Jean Miller (seated), is an upstate New York housewife who redecorates her living room in protest of the Bush administration. David Norum, Jenny Shaheen, and John Carroll (left to right) try to save her from her delusions in The Fourth Wall. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • REDECORATE OR DIE : Peggy, played by Jean Miller (seated), is an upstate New York housewife who redecorates her living room in protest of the Bush administration. David Norum, Jenny Shaheen, and John Carroll (left to right) try to save her from her delusions in The Fourth Wall.

Experienced from a church pew, The Fourth Wall is all the more surreal, all the more weird.

Peggy, played by Jean Miller, is an upstate New York housewife so disturbed by Bush’s presidency that she’s rearranged her living room furniture in protest. All of it now faces a single, unadorned white wall—incidentally, the imaginary wall separating the stage from the audience.

Her husband Roger (David Norum), increasingly concerned by her arrangements, has called in a support team. He invites Peggy’s old school friend Julia (the snootily spot-on Jenny Shaheen) to come up from the city, and drama professor Floyd—played to hilarious effect by No Shame regular John Carroll—because Peggy has come to believe she’s stuck in a play that badly needs a rewrite.

Peggy’s wall, you see, has a certain power. You feel nervous in front of it. Your movements become somehow exaggerated, contrived. When you speak, your voice begins to project, unbidden, from the diaphragm. You feel you are being watched by many anonymous eyes. You’re not exactly sure why you get this feeling, or what it has to do with the Bush thing. But you trust the playwright who is writing your life story will work out those details in an upcoming scene.

Wait, what are you talking about? You’re delusional. You must be on the wrong side of A.R. Gurney’s The Fourth Wall.

In order to relate to Peggy, the rest of the cast decides to play along with her game. But soon, they too are affected by the wall’s eerie presence. And so begins a bizarre, witty play: a piece of theater that has just realized it’s a piece of theater and can’t stop self-consciously preening in front of the eponymous fourth wall.

Floyd, a theater expert, tries to help Peggy work out a meaningful plot. They scoff at Roger and Julia’s dalliances in the wings, not because of the implied infidelity, but because they threaten to pull the show down to the level of continental sex comedies.

Directed by Gene Strohl and presented at United Church of Christ, the play is being staged by Strohl’s RadioActive Players, in conjunction with minister Curt Miner’s God is Still Speaking Theater Co. Miner, an unconventional pastor with more background in drama than ministry, has allowed Strohl to use his sacred space as a venue, rent-free. In exchange, proceeds from the show will benefit the church.

- THE PLOT THICKENS: - The Fourth Wall takes the stage at United Church of Christ (Congregational) at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, and Sunday, May 1. Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased at the venue. -
  • THE PLOT THICKENS: The Fourth Wall takes the stage at United Church of Christ (Congregational) at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, and Sunday, May 1. Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased at the venue.

Strohl has a long history of involvement in drama, both onstage and on the air. His RadioActive players formed to record radio dramas like Oblomov and The Petrified Forest, which aired on KCBX—for which Strohl does a classical music show on Sundays. But Strohl continually finds it hard to get the rights to broadcast plays, and has in recent years opted to stage them instead.

All the better for The Fourth Wall, a show that relies on, well, a fourth wall that’s visibly sustained until the very end.

Carroll’s Floyd is deliciously arrogant and overblown, with a booming voice accustomed to the dusty lecture halls of academia. His arrival threatens to reduce the rest of the cast to impertinent children. As the superficial Julia, Shaheen is a riot. She and Floyd are polar opposites, but they bond when they think they’ve discovered an unexpected plot twist—in a subplot, no less.

Norum’s Roger has these wonderful moments of cheesy acting, induced by the presence of the wall, which contrast nicely with his more candid scenes in which the wall is forgotten. As Peggy, Miller is innocent and earnest, her brow always ready to furrow when she senses her ideals are being made light of.

Costumes are minimal but realistic: New York social climber Julia is tarted up in a smart suit. Floyd wears the trademark sport coat of the stuffy academic. Peggy and Roger’s sweater-and-slacks fare is in keeping with their middle-class stature.

But the relative normalcy of the cast’s appearance belies the experimental nature of the performance, in which
all the characters’ interactions seem to be made on the basis of whether or not they will work in the scene—and everyone has a different opinion about what the play is about. One line sums it up extraordinarily well: “We don’t belong in the same play, lady, let alone the
same scene.”

Peggy chastises her husband for not having listened to her earlier, saying, “If you and me had just had this scene at the beginning, we would never have had to have it at the end.” At another point, as a frustrated Peggy storms out of the room, Julia comments airily, “She needs a good director.” People find themselves bursting into song.

The performance is rich on many levels. There’s Gurney’s commentary on theater itself—how it’s getting so tawdry in its attempts to mirror television. There are the political jabs, somewhat outdated now that Bush is no longer president, but which land nevertheless with a satisfying ping.

Then there’s Peggy’s existential crisis: Her kids have flown the nest, and she’s uneasy about the political environment into which she’s released them. Her desire to escape from her limited domestic lifestyle solidifies during the years of the Bush administration into a desire to escape into another dimension altogether, one where she can make a difference in the world and teach Bush a lesson. That dimension, she believes, lies on the other side of the fourth wall.

This is where the play enters the land of faith-versus-delusion. If Peggy can just get through that wall, she believes, her feeling of powerlessness will be resolved. The idea is almost as laughable as claiming one’s whispers are listened to, attentively, by an invisible deity. It’s funny, then, that Peggy turns out to be right, and that the moment of her breakthrough is the show’s most profound. 

Arts Editor Anna Weltner feels like people are always reading into her. Contact her at aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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