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by Mary Shen Barnidge

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Playwright: Joel Drake Johnson

At: Den Productions at the Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 773-697-3830; $45. Runs through: June 30

We start out anticipating a comedy: our setting in the first scene, after all, is a car—that most quintessential of middle-class suburban transports—occupied by cantankerous elderly matron Peggy, her sullen grown son Warren and her sad-faced grown daughter Ellen.

Their destination is a weekly luncheon, designed to give Mom some time away from caring for the family's disabled dad. The atmosphere is heavy with tension—suppressed anger finding expression in occasional bursts of hostile accusation—but we are certain that by the play's conclusion, under the coaxing of chirpy restaurant server Barb, the issues underlying their contention will be resolved and filial loyalty affirmed.

Don't count on it! Before any hope of reconciliation can be entertained, we must first determine whether Peggy's attempt to murder her hard-drinking husband was a response to the abusive taunting of a spiteful spouse seeking to reassign blame for his suicide, and her failure to complete the task, the result of her own irresolution ( physical, or psychological ). We must also ascertain the source of Warren's impaired speech and hearing and the reasons for his absence from his teaching duties. Ellen's dogged serenity under pressure also rouses our suspicions, and could Barb, who coddles Peggy like a doting nanny, possibly be kin to her "favorite customer" in real life? Remember—these are people long-accustomed to telling lies in order to justify socially inappropriate behavior.

The most challenging question posed by Joel Drake Johnson, though, is where we are to invest our emotions when we don't know who to believe? Unlike babies—by definition, capable of moral growth and thus exempt from accountability—aged parents, however diminished their capacities, are not so easily exonerated from responsibility for the trouble they leave behind.

Director Lia Mortenson has assembled an all-star cast led by Meg Thalken, whom theatergoers may recall from the play's 2008 premiere at Victory Gardens in the role of Ellen, but who now portrays the acerbic Peggy ( with the aid of a few subtlely applied mannerisms necessary to achieve the requisite geriatric aspect ). Bruch Reed, Amy Montgomery and Rebekah Ward likewise deliver performances invoking our sympathies for the children whose suffering is not so much the legacy of their propensity for deception than their remorseless endorsement of its practice. ( Consider that as a topic for post-show discussions. )

In the nearly 10 years since its inauguration, the Den has expanded from a single-stage loft theater to a multiplex arts emporium—an accomplishment leaving its founders little time to pursue their own projects. A home-team production like this one is a rarity, in other words. You don't want to spend another decade regretting your hesitation, do you?

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