Fifth of July
The playwright unquestionably makes that humble declaration between the lines of his 1978 work Fifth of July, which the Signature Theatre is reviving with quiet beauty as part of a season-long Lanford Wilson tribute. In a statement written to accompany the production, the prolific dramatist notes that he was driven to write this play when, like so many others in the years immediately following the Vietnam war, he began to wonder what had been gained by those who championed the conflict or those who opposed it.
Given the heat of his vexation, Wilson writes more in conciliation than in anger as he brings together Kenneth Talley, his sister June, aunt Sally, niece Shirley, lover Jed, longtime friends Gwen and John, and a musician friend of theirs called Weston. In Lebanon, Missouri, they're having a Fourth of July celebration that turns out to be unexpectedly eventful. The caustic, quick-witted Ken (Robert Sean Leonard), who left most of his legs in Southeast Asia and now can't commit himself to teaching, doesn't see the depression in which he's mired; but the taciturn, serene Jed (Michael Gladis), a botanist who's designing gardens on the Talley farm, is aware of how dark things are.
Foul-mouthed copper heiress Gwen (Parker Posey), who looks to have turned her business affairs as a recording artist over to hearty boyfriend, John (David Harbour), seems too enthralled to her own iconoclastic, career-oriented self to notice much else. Nor does Ken's plight look to be appreciated by guitar-strumming, weed-toking Weston (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) or Shirley (Sarah Lord), a precocious 13-year-old who changes her clothes as often as she changes prospective identities. June (Jessalyn Gilsig), who's turned Shirley over to Sally, has on her mind the need to right her deficiencies as a mother, and Sally (Pamela Payton-Wright) is preoccupied with scattering the ashes of her late Jewish husband, Matt Friedman.
They all confront or dodge their situations over the two-day holiday, with July fifth being the day when celebrating is kaput and daily realities have to be unflinchingly faced. Always a master of many-sided conversations that have the authentic ring of recognizable people talking, Wilson puts memorably off-hand badinage into his figures' mouths, or maybe he would say he takes accurate dictation while they expatiate. Discussing the events that have brought them to where they are and considering forcibly whether they plan to go on or not, they let fall all sorts of incisive lines that have the dual effect of delighting audiences while provoking them to think.
Perhaps the most arresting speech is tossed off by the apparently loopy Gwen when, recalling the activist days she shared with June, Ken, and John in the 60's, she ends her piqued peroration by declaring, "How straight do you have to be to see that nothing is going to come from it?" The statement, by the way, is often taken to be Wilson's personal commentary on a stagnant political situation. It isn't. It's an expression of one character's frustration that happens to be widely shared elsewhere. It's no more a summation of the author's beliefs than is the hilariously contentious exchange Weston has with a few of the others about an Eskimo myth in which starvation, frozen meat, and flatulence play a part. The point Wilson means to make obliquely -- the inclusion of this seeming digression -- concerns the difficulty of anyone's knowing what lessons are to be derived from life-altering experiences like, for instance, the Vietnam war.
Wilson, as much a humanist as anyone currently constructing play after play, has such affection for these Independence Day celebrants that, as evidenced by both Gwen's and Weston's outpourings, the spaciest figures are often the ones making the most trenchant remarks. Conversely, the brainier participants peopling Richard Hoover's commodious clapboard set here are stymied despite their intelligence. Ken is the focal character, but he's also the most stationary, his prosthetic legs an emblem of the slow progress he's made finding emotional footing. June and Sally also go around in circles more than necessary, while Jed, often silently standing off to the side, is the person literally and symbolically helping things grow. The way he's depicted nurturing Ken as lovingly and believably as he nurtures his plants is one of Wilson's most understated achievements as playwright. (In these circumstances, James Vermeulen's sensitive lighting could be called grow lighting.) Another Wilson accomplishment is the skillful writing of the late second-act incident where the overbearing John's carelessness brings Ken to his senses. The script misstep is Shirley, one of those precocious moppets whose antics are more annoying than cute.
Twenty-five years on, it's now clear that Fifth of July is notable as one of the first, if not the first, family play in which the definition of family is examined and revised. Ken, Sally, June, and Shirley are related, but they aren't a traditional father-mother-son-daughter unit. They're the remnants of one family -- Shirley refers to herself as "the last of the Talleys" -- mingling with the family of friends that Ken, Gwen, and John have been and the same-sex family Ken and Jed are starting. (During the action, Ken makes some facetious references to birth-control pills.) Maybe it was Wilson's realizing he was on to something that prompted him to produce his Talley tetralogy. (The prequels are Talley's Folly, Talley & Son, and A Tale Told.) In compiling this four-pronged look at a family's progress in a heartland state, he's contributed, it's now obvious, not so much the portrait of a family running its course as the portrait of a family altering its course and continuing.
Being in the family way has impressed the cast, whom Jo Bonney directs with a sure and free hand. Wearing Ann Hould-Ward's convincing costumes, they've become ensemble as family. Robert Sean Leonard, who has an intellect's savvy about him, and Michael Gladis, whose beatific grin never cloys, are a core around which the others spin. (Show-biz trivia: Leonard will hop from Talley to Tyrone this spring when he plays in Long Day's Journey into Night.) As she goes about Gwen's business, Parker Posey expertly deploys the indie-film quirkiness that's made her the Sundance Queen. Yes, this is the role on which Swoosie Kurtz carved her name, but, showing her roots in a cagey character choice, Posey brands it, too. As Weston, Ebon Moss-Bachrach moves, like all good comics, to a different and very funky drummer. Pamela Peyton-Wright is fine as Sally, as are Jessalyn Gilsig as sharp-edged June and David Harbour as John. Sarah Lord, however, can't do much to make Shirley appealing or, for that matter, to make Shirley look 13 going on 21. She already looks, well, too close to 21 to be 13.