Fifth of July
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 28, 2009
I don't know who's in charge of deciding what the classic American canon comprises these days, but I hope that whoever it is has Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July on the list. If s/he does not—well, then a trip to T. Schreiber Studio this month is in order. There, a near-flawless, extremely moving production of this exquisite play is being presented. Theatergoers of every stripe would do well to take it in.
The play unfolds on Independence Day 1977 and, as the title promises, the day after. The location is the Talley Place, a farm near the small town of Lebanon, Missouri (an actual town, about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis, as near to the American Heartland as anywhere). Ken Talley, Jr., owns the place; he is a schoolteacher who lost both legs in the Vietnam War. He lives here with his lover Jed, who is a botanist and who is transforming the adjacent land into a classical garden.
Ken and Jed have visitors for the holiday: his sister June and her handful-of-a-daughter, 13-year-old Shirley; their aunt Sally, who grew up in this house and has returned to sprinkle the ashes of her late husband around the boathouse where they first made love; and John and Gwen Landis, friends of Ken and June from their college days at Berkeley. Gwen is the heiress to a copper conglomerate and a wannabe rock singer, and among other things she and John have come to talk to Ken about buying the Talley Place and converting it into a studio for her budding music career. Her composer/collaborator Weston Hurley completes the guest list.
So: a bunch of people who have mostly known each other for a long time confront past and present demons in a relatively confined space. Sure, it's been done before (see, for example, most of the plays of Chekhov), but Wilson gives the thing a distinctly Baby Boomer American character: these people talk and feel and breathe with startling authenticity; depending on your age, you will see some of yourself in Aunt Sally or the '60s refugees Ken, John, June, and Gwen, or the younger Jed, Wes, and Shirley. And if you ever wanted to understand exactly how the Civil Rights/Vietnam Era shaped the generation who lived through it (and, indirectly, the ones that followed), just listen to Wilson's insightful characters. Gwen, in particular, has a speech near the end of Act One that encapsulates the times she lived through with an eloquence and precision that's heart-stopping and even a little heartbreaking.
Director Peter Jensen has cast this Fifth of July cannily and then for the most part stepped aside, letting his actors bring Wilson's characters to life for us and play out the events of the two days with an immediacy that's only possible in truly accomplished hands and abetted by the intimacy of the Schreiber Studio space. Jamie Neumann, whom Schreiber regulars will remember from Sister Cities and You Can't Take it with You, has the showiest role as Gwen and she makes this larger-than-life creature her own, wholly convincingly and with a rare balance of humor, chutzpah, and vulnerability. David Villalobos anchors the piece as Ken, capturing both the paralyzing anxieties that are keeping him from moving forward in his career as well as the wry and carefully cultivated passivity that gets him through the days. Villalobos also portrays Ken's disability with great accuracy; and he has palpable chemistry with Edward Campbell, who gives us a portrait of Jed that highlights his humor, strength, and heart.
Ellen Reilly's June and Michael W. Murray's John mine the complexity of their characters, and newcomer Jonathan Orsini, in his NYC stage debut, is a charmer as the earnest but generally befogged Wes. Lily DePaula, a recent graduate of LaGuardia High School of the Arts, is terrific as Shirley, showing us a girl on the cusp of young adulthood trying to sort through a lot of baggage—DePaula makes her escapades believable cries for attention rather than the acting-out of a bratty child. And Lucy Avery Brooke does brilliant work as Aunt Sally, creating a woman who is completely secure in her own skin, as much a revolutionary, in her quiet way, as her activist single-mother niece or her gay vet nephew.
What's finally wonderful about this revival of Fifth of July is how wrapped up with all these people we find ourselves: they're grand company and we are privileged to spend time with them. Strong production elements, from the skillful fight choreography of Ricki G. Ravitts to the ambient sound design of Chris Rummel to the on-target costumes, set, and lights (by Anne Wingate, Matt Brogan, and Eric Cope, respectively), further enhance the work.
Every time I see one of Lanford Wilson's plays, I remember anew what a great and seemingly underappreciated genius he really is. We're fortunate right now to have this, one of his very best plays, on stage in an exemplary production that itself is the very best New York indie theater has to offer. I hope you'll take advantage of this opportunity and see it for yourself.