Everyman warms up to `5th of July'

Review: Lanford Wilson play meanders, but the cast and crew capture the ambience and spirit of a summer holiday and old friends coping with new truths.

May 03, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Lanford Wilson's "5th of July" takes place over Independence Day, and before the play ends, there are plenty of fireworks. There's also plenty of attention paid to the theme of personal dependence vs. independence.

Four of the play's eight characters share a history dating back to the free-love, drug-hazed, anti-war days of the late 1960s. Seeing what these former idealists have become a decade and a half later forms the core of Wilson's meandering play, which has nonetheless been ably produced under Vincent M. Lancisi's direction at Everyman Theatre.

Part of Wilson's trilogy about the fictitious Talley family of Lebanon, Mo., "5th of July" takes place more than three decades after his Pulitzer Prize-winning and more fluidly written "Talley's Folly." Sally Talley, the heroine of that drama, appears here, but this play belongs primarily to the next generation.

That generation is represented by Sally's nephew, Ken, a Vietnam vet and double amputee, and his sister, June, who is in Lebanon with her illegitimate teen-age daughter, Shirley. The family is joined for the holiday by two of Ken and June's old friends from their Berkeley years: Gwen, a copper heiress and aspiring country singer; and her wheeler-dealer husband, John.

The four friends may have been open and honest back at Berkeley, but such noble character traits seem long gone, judging from the amount of behind-the-scenes scheming that's takingplace now. John and Gwen are trying to buy the Talley family home to turn into a recording studio, and John is running Gwen's copper business behind her back.

Celeste Lawson's excessively hyperbolic Gwen and Nigel Reed's slimy John are such slick hipsters, it's difficult to care what happens to them. The same cannot be said for bitter, cynical Ken, who is movingly played by Timmy Ray James as a man broken in spirit as well as body. Ken's devoted lover, Jed, compassionately portrayed by Kyle Prue, is a botanist who has been painstakingly planting and designing formal gardens for the house, unaware that Ken may sell the property.

This hidden agenda surfaces along with other previously veiled matters, all with the explosive potential to rip apart family and friends. The play takes too long to reach this point, however, and the connections between characters are not as clear as they could be early on.

Still, Lancisi and his cast successfully capture the ambience of a lazy summer holiday as well as the contentiousness that can hover over a family gathering. Open-minded Sally is clearly the spiritual matriarch of the play's 1960s folk, and Vivienne Shub gives her a nice breezy air, without overdoing the character's eccentricity. Sally's sensibility has also been inherited by her great-niece, Shirley, exuberantly played by Megan Anderson.

Set designer Daniel Conway locates the action on an attractively inviting sun porch, whose summery openness has been enhanced by reconfiguring Everyman's stage into a deep thrust design, with the audience seated on three sides.

"5th of July" has one of those endings in which the characters come to -- or are forced to -- confront the truth about themselves, learn from the experience and go on. Though a bit pat, it's a satisfying resolution that reinforces the importance of maintaining connections and relationships.

`5th of July'

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2: 30 p.m. Sundays. Through May 21

Tickets: $12-$15

Call: 410-752-2208

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