MN Players in Swarthmore opened their 71st Season with the Lanford Wilson play, FIFTH OF JULY. This is the first play in the “Talley Trilogy” of plays by Mr. Wilson, about the fictitious Talley family in Lebanon, Missouri. FIFTH OF JULY is the story of Kenneth Talley, Jr. (Thomas-Robert Irvin), a paraplegic Vietnam vet who has returned to his childhood home with his boyfriend, botanist Jed Jenkins (Josiah Donnell). Kenneth has returned to Lebanon to teach at his high school alma mater, but as we learn later he has decided not to do so. Long-time friends John and Gwen Landis (Tim Oskin and Heather Ferrel) come to visit, ostensibly to purchase the Talley home to convert it into a recording studio for Gwen, but John has ulterior motives for the visit. Gwen owns a copper conglomerate, and John is trying to run things while keeping Gwen distracted by her burgeoning singing career…and unbeknownst to all but a few, John is the father of Shirley (Alyssa Marino), the daughter of Ken’s sister, June Talley (Cathy Gibbons Mostek) and is trying to get joint custody of Shirley. They are joined in the home by Gwen’s guitarist, Weston Jurley (Jim Carroll) and Ken’s aunt, Sally Friedman (Ellie Knickman).
As Ken Talley, Mr. Irvin shows a quiet intensity, dealing with the inner turmoil of his self doubt and fear. I found myself getting drawn into the story when he was the primary storyteller. Ms. Ferrel as Gwen was delightfully over-the-top as the (seemingly) ditzy wannabe singer. Ms. Knickman gives a nice understated performance as the widowed Sally, reluctant to spread her deceased husband’s ashes so she keeps them in a candy box.
This is not easy material…all of the characters are easily turned into caricatures of themselves, and it seems most of the play has some form of high-energy situation going on. Some of the actors handled this better than others. Ms. Mostek in particular seemed to be angry and frustrated throughout the entire play, sometimes with little motivation to be so on fire. It seems that the actors were encouraged to go over the top with their characters, but some went a bit too far. There were a few times when interchanges started out quietly and blew up with seemingly no provocation. This led to some uncomfortable moments for the audience as they tried to “catch up” with what the actors were trying to portray.
Conversely, Director Cindy N. Walton does a fine job of allowing Wilson’s words to tell this story, keeping things flowing nicely. The homosexual relationship between Ken and Jed is obvious but not overbearing…the honest expression of two people who truly love each other. Relationships among the friends and family on stage felt very sincere and fleshed out, with a definite feel that these people had known each other for a long time. The pace was brisk but not overly so…Wilson is very wordy, and his plays run long, but this cast kept the audience engaged throughout.
Lanford Wilson is one of our great American playwrights, handling difficult issues with sensitivity and brilliant wordplay. FIFTH OF JULY is a tough piece to do. Kudos to MN Players for attempting such a difficult piece to start their season.
FIFTH OF JULY
by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Cindy N. Walton
September 16-October 1, 2011
129 Park Avenue
Swarthmore, PA 19081