War, loss, the future, family, and career comprise many of the themes in Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July”. This is the first play written (and the last chronologically) in Wilson’s Talley Trilogy following the Talley family.
The story is set in Wilson’s hometown of Lebanon, Missouri over the 4th of July in 1977. Ken Talley (Michael Champlin) is a Vietnam veteran who’s a double amputee having lost both his legs in the conflict. He recently returned to his boyhood home to live with his lover Jed Jenkins (Sean Faulk) and to begin teaching English at his old high school, but he finds his holiday turned into a veritable “Big Chill-ish” long weekend of discovery amidst a houseful of colorful guests.
Visiting for the holiday are Ken’s sister June (Katie O’Bryon), her 13-year-old daughter Shirley (Citlali Pizarro), Ken and June’s long time friends John and Gwen Landis (Alan Phinney and Xanadu Bruggers), Gwen’s guitarist and composer Weston Hurley (Tom Osborne), and finally Ken and June’s Aunt Sally (Carolyn Power). We are initially led to believe they all are there for the Fourth of July holiday and a memorial service on the fifth.
As the story progresses, we find out that Jed is a botanist and is the supportive lover he appears to be at the outset, but Ken has some hidden fears and plans that unfold. June has a colorful past, and Shirley’s lineage and a hidden scheme come to light as the real reasons for Gwen and John’s latest visit. Aunt Sally is both eccentric and down to earth, and she and Wes find they have some common interests as Wes, a drugged-out hippie, demonstrates a peculiar, and unexpected, breadth of knowledge.
Director Troy Johnson’s staging works well for the most part. Champlin in particular has the difficult task of playing a double amputee, and he does so competently capturing the movements of someone just learning to walk using prosthetic legs aided by crutches. Even the small touches, such as positioning his legs with his hands when getting up and sitting down, are executed consistently. His seeming embarrassment over his disability is genuine, and his character’s fears about his future come through. He and Faulk play a gay couple convincingly without making the fact that they are gay the foremost aspect of the piece. Their scenes together are credible and are not overplayed. Champlin’s scenes with O’Bryon as his sister June are also natural and believable; a nice accomplishment considering that Champlin and O’Bryon are scheduled to marry shortly after the production closes.
O’Bryon and Pizarro have an interesting dynamic. Recently reunited after Shirley’s being raised by Aunt Sally and Uncle Matt during June’s flamboyant protesting years, they are strangers with June claiming an inability to discipline her 13-year-old daughter amidst Shirley’s overly melodramatic attempts to remain the center of attention. The two verbally spar in some “cat and mouse” like repartee. Pizarro also banters with Phinney in some appropriately heated exchanges.
Pizarro and Bruggers also have some rapid exchanges, seemingly on the same side, but their interactions read a bit too contrived often swinging each others’ arms to and fro as they talk. Bruggers’ character is sympathetic, reaching out to Shirley and encouraging her.
Phinney and Bruggers play a volatile couple trapped in their lust-centric college day mindset. While Phinney is mostly credible, he tends to push a little too hard particularly in his arguments with various characters, at times forcing those arguments to a volume level beyond what’s necessary in the intimate Pear performance space, at least for those in the first three rows.
Osborne is fun. His portrayal of Wes is suitably in his own little world, his humor gentle and believable. He’s cast as a musician carrying around a guitar for large portions of the play, and although he appears to be playing it, with no sound emanating from the instrument, the illusion doesn’t quite work.
Power plays the matriarch who’s in touch with what’s important. She’s eccentric given Sally has been carrying her husband’s ashes around in a candy box for a year, but she’s also in touch with her character’s feelings and motivations. Her monologues are well timed as she delivers them in her own space away from the other action.
Ron Gasparinetti’s set captures the range required in the script, starting in the Talley’s family/sun room in Act 1 with the useable front porch evident through a screen door upstage left and a short staircase upstage right leading to the rest of the house. A functional desk and chair sit stage right, and beer bottles remaining from the previous night’s bull session are strewn atop the coffee table. The script calls for Act 2 to move to the front porch the next morning, and in the intimate Pear Avenue performance space, the set is folded to cleverly reveal the porch previously seen through the screen in Act 1, now running diagonally from upstage left to the downstage right corner.
Gordon and Jeanie K. Smith provide the sound design for the show, and they utilize 70s music playing before the show, and at intermission which establishes the era, although that is a touch too loud. The sound of birds chirping is used in the early morning which is noticeable when no one is speaking, but it nicely fades into the background under the dialog appropriately framing the scene. Church bells toll at the top of Act 2, a discussion point between Shirley and Jed.
As Johnson says in his program notes, “the saving grace is to survive,” and that’s what these characters do, they survive. “Fifth of July” has many moments of humor, others of pathos, but it also offers hope. This is a solid production worth seeing as it continues Thursdays through Sundays through 9 October 2011 at the Pear Avenue Theatre located at: 1220 Pear Avenue, Unit K, Mountain View, CA 94043. See http://www.thepear.org or call (650)254-1148 for tickets or more information.
(Photo credit: Ray Renati)