Christopher Shinn's Four follows exactly that many characters one Fourth of July. It's difficult to talk about the plot of this play, produced by Sol Arts and directed by Blake Magnusson, without giving too much away, which is odd, since not much happens. Rather, it's the characters' relationships with each other that are intended to have a dramatic impact. A middle-aged man named Joe is connected to two young people, Abigayle and June, who is a boy despite his feminine name. Then there's Dexter, a bit older, who's connected to Abigayle. The majority of the action happens between the pairs of Joe/June and Abigayle/Dexter, the events between one set often mirroring or refuting the work of the other.
Magnusson's director's notes talk about the play's "preponderance of hot-button issues," which may or may not include drug use, sexuality (homo, hetero), virginity, sluttiness, dinosaurs, identity, responsibility and ice cream (I threw in a couple of ringers there so as not to ruin the discovery for you). I wondered, then, why it all felt so terribly unimportant. Why, with four characters being pushed and pulled by their sexual desires (or ice cream urges), did the production seem strangely passionless?
The work is set up so that the action goes back and forth between the pairs, but no one ever leaves the stage. (As a side note, I have to say how disappointed I am that they recycled the set from my 1987 junior high talent show, complete with multicolored shapes and splattered paint, without crediting my work.) Perhaps this is part of what made the play feel like a construct, something calculated to evince emotion without earning it. And while the performances were good, Preacher Riley as Joe and Jesus Mayorga as Dexter mostly missed the opportunity to mine the subtext of their characters' words and actions. Riley's captivating stage presence didn't quite find a harmony with the man he played, and Mayorga lacked the menace needed to make the conflict mean something. Sometimes, they didn't seem to be in the same scene.
The two younger actors, Danielle Fleming as Abigayle and Teddy Jackson as June, fared better. They did some very strong work, communicating June's heavy hope and Abigayle's tough sweetness. With almost no exceptions, they became their characters, and it was through these performances that I experienced a true moment of investment. I wanted to protect June and Abigayle from the sadness of sex. Not the disease or the pregnancy, but the sense of loss that can occur when you're too young and it's too wrong. It was a fleeting feeling, and I wish the whole play worked on that level, but it was satisfying nonetheless and a testament to the director and actors. This production is brave on many levels, but there’s still a bit of a safety net. I don’t think they need it.