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Fifth of July

Lanford Wilson's 1978 family drama gets a lovingly directed and well acted revival at Long Island's Bay Street Theatre. logo
Anson Mount and Elizabeth Franz in Fifth of July
(© Jerry Lamonica)
Lanford Wilson has always specialized in ensemble pieces, and his 1978 drama Fifth of July -- now getting a fine revival under Terry Kinney's loving direction at Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theatre -- is one of the playwright's finest examples.

A case could be made for what warms Wilson's works is that while his small and enclosed communities are riddled with inter-personal conflict, there's always an underlying current of shared love. That's definitely on display in this production (which will be seen later this summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival) as eight actors are repeatedly given chances to shine center stage -- and seize them -- while depicting what happens in the sun-room and on the patio of a commodious rural Missouri farmhouse over two hot and heated summer days.

It's here where Kenneth Talley Jr. (Anson Mount), whose legs were lost during the Vietnam War, is convinced he can't take on the teaching job to which he's committed and believes his only recourse is to sell the family home and flee to Greece -- an option not shared by live-in lover-and-gardener Jed Jenkins (Shane McRae). Kenneth's aunt Sally (Elizabeth Franz) can't decide whether or not to scatter the ashes of her late husband, while sister June Talley (Kellie Overbey) has her patience tried by her precocious 13-year-old daughter Shirley (Kally Duling), a girl given to cavorting in various costumes and spouting provocative remarks.

Also populating the house -- rendered by David Gallo's gorgeous wood-and-atmosphere-heavy set -- are rich Talley friends Gwen Landis (Jennifer Mudge) and John Landis (David Wilson Barnes), who have got their hearts set on buying the Talley residence so they can convert it into a recording studio where Gwen and her loopy, barely articulate singer-songwriter colleague Weston Hurley (Danny Deferrari) can make tracks.

Never motivated to include overly complicated plot turns, Wilson simply observes his characters' byplay during the time they've come together to antagonize and yet ultimately support one another. Day one is July 4th, for which sound designer Obadiah Eaves supplies the noise of fireworks and lighting designer David Weiner provides the illuminations for the fireflies (which Wilson means as metaphors for how briefly the characters' lives flicker and connect).

As Ken, Mount has a firm grip on the depression into which the worried fellow is sinking -- not to mention success at suggesting the effort it takes for the man to get around on crutches. McRae has just a firm a handle on the care Jed must minister without becoming obsequious. Meanwhile, Overbey conveys June's impatience at everything around her; Duling cleverly keeps Shirley's incessant shenanigans this side of off-putting; Franz's Sally is a model of bruised feelings; Mudge is a bundle of unbounded energy; and Barnes and Deferrari make the most of what they've been given.

When Fifth of July first premiered, it accurately reflected our country's post-Vietnam discontent, anxiety, and uncertainty. Today, it's a period piece, but, as such, it is hardly dated. In particular, the view it offers of the Ken-Jed same-sex relationship renders the play relevant to today's don't-ask-don't-tell reconsiderations.

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