RWU’s The Fourth Wall

Plays that tackle political commentary face the challenge of staying relevant in a constantly shifting world. The world of 1992, when AR Gurney’s The Fourth Wall first appeared on stage, is very different from the one in which we live today. Thus, when Roger Williams University decided to put on the play to kick off their summer season, they were faced with the task of updating it while keeping its spirit intact. Their first step was obtaining Gurney’s blessing to shift the political focus to our current climate specifically, to our current presumptive Republican presidential nominee. This is not the first update the play has received; while it was originally written about Gulf War I during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, in 2002 it was rewritten to focus on the presidency of George W. Bush and his policies. With Gurney’s blessing and encouragement, the show went on.

In addition to the political commentary, there is also a hefty supply of commentary on theater. The title itself, The Fourth Wall, refers to the metaphorical wall that exists between the performers on stage and the audience watching them. The fourth wall ensures that the performers on stage are unaware of and unaffected by the audience, as though the audience exists in a different realm from the events unfolding on stage. When the performers engage directly with the audience or reference the fact that they are in a play, the fourth wall is broken.

The Fourth Wall features a quartet of characters dealing with feng shui gone awry. Peggy has redecorated her living room so that one wall is completely blank, and all of the furniture in the room faces this wall. What’s worse, whenever someone enters the room, they feel compelled to perform to the fourth wall as though in a play. Her husband Roger is unnerved by the arrangement and concerned about his wife. In order to get to the bottom of things, he invites their dear friend Julia up from New York. Julia confirms that something strange is going on and ultimately suggests that Roger call “976-NUTS” and have Peggy put away so they can have the affair they have never before thought about. Unwilling to give up on his wife, Roger instead calls local theater professor Floyd. Floyd finds in Peggy a St. Joan-like character, and urges her to follow in St. Joan’s footsteps and break through the fourth wall to reach the people.

Clare Blackmer’s Peggy reflects an obsessive desire to change the world and to reach people. In her tirades against capitalism and Donald Trump, she reveals a frustration with the state of the world and with this fourth wall separating her from her true calling, and in doing so, calls out the limitations of theater to make a difference; in theater, talk is action, but in the real world, talk is not sufficient. As Julia, Milly Massey represents a more cliched and shallow plot: that of adultery and love triangles, tried and true and without depth. Her seductive city girl ways are both hilarious and a commentary on the state of the low-brow entertainment we hold so dear. Vincent Petronio’s performance of Roger balances the inherent comedy of a businessman trying to act with a genuine love of his wife and willingness to follow wherever she goes, even if he’s the Sancho to her Don Quixote rather than her strapping romantic counterpart. In Brien Lang’s Floyd, we see a washed up academic disillusioned with sitcom-style entertainment who finds a new hope and excitement in Peggy’s play.

The Fourth Wall manages to be both funny and thought-provoking. It confronts the limitations of theater as a means of social and political change, and it challenges us to consider our role in the political theater and whether we take on a passive or active role in the pursuit of changing the world.

The Fourth Wall ran through June 25 at the Performing Arts Center at Roger Williams University as part of its Barn Summer Playhouse series. For information on upcoming shows, visit rwu.edu/academics/schools-colleges/fcas/theatre-program/barn-summer-playhouse.

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