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In a few years, when we’re looking back on Washington Shakespeare Company’s first decade, we’re going to have to acknowledge that guts and blind faith played a part in its success. Not every fledgling company decides in its inaugural season to find previously undreamed-of laughs in Sartre’s No Exit, or tackles Waiting for Godot in the midst of a financial crisis.
But if WSC has triumphed by taking chances over the years, they’re all chances that have to do with showcasing exemplary writing. At the troupe’s Clark Street Playhouse, patrons can always rest assured that the language will be extraordinary, be it by Byron, Beckett, or the Bard. On those occasions when the company turns to American authors, it’s almost always to mine a rich vein of plain-spoken poetry in works by folks like John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath), Sam Shepard (Curse of the Starving Class), and Ntozake Shange (For Colored Girls…).
And now, Lanford Wilson. His 5th of July is a tapestry of overlapping, sophisticated, often hilarious debates between friends and relatives sharing the ramshackle Lebanon, Mo., farmhouse known as the Talley place. Taken together, they illustrate how a generation of bra- and draftcard-burning ’60s idealists made the transition to the Me Decade. Christopher Henley’s generously acted, richly nuanced production makes their journey raucous, funny, and as warming as a summer breeze.
Celebrated in 1978 for the still-remarkable feat of incorporating a gay relationship into a family drama that has things other than homosexuality on its mind, 5th of July remains, some 19 years later, a remarkably affectionate portrait of a difficult time. The play’s era is the one that sacked a president for labeling America’s mood a “malaise,” but you’d be hard pressed to connect that term with any of the characters save protagonist Ken Talley Jr. (Michael Comlish), who lost his legs in Vietnam and his nerve in front of a high-school class that couldn’t place that country on a map.
Certainly there’s nothing malaise-filled about Gwen (Katie Barrett), the brassy, cocaine-addled, folk-singing copper heiress who has breezed into town with her manipulative husband John (David Fendig), hoping to buy the old Talley place and convert it into a recording studio. Nor does the term apply to Ken’s lover Jed (Christopher Janson), a sexy botanist who’s planting in the back yard an English garden that won’t mature for decades.
Those details should indicate where the plot’s going, but they don’t suggest the circuitous path Wilson takes to his climaxthrough the ditherings of Ken’s eccentric Aunt Sally (Nancy Grosshans), who keeps her husband’s ashes in a candy box, and the machinations of his niece Shirley (Rana Kay), the most precocious 13-year-old this side of Baby June. Also on hand are Shirley’s acerbic mom (Brook Butterworth), and an emptyheaded guitarist (Andrew Price) whose notions of profundity come from folktales about flatulent eskimos. The Talley place’s occupants, in short, are about as diverse as a gaggle of whitebread Midwesterners is ever going to get. And as rambunctious.
You may have heard intimations that the play itself hasn’t aged well. Pay them no mind. They’re not untrue, just irrelevant when a script meshes as well with its staging as this one does. (Mourning Becomes Electra hasn’t aged well, but let Michael Kahn superheat its passions until they erupt magmalike from 20-foot doorways and what audience would possibly care?)
What’s dated about 5th of July is the stock it places in character. Wilson cribbed his slender plot from The Cherry Orchard, which means incident is hardly the order of the day. No one, in fact, is going anywhere fast, even if Shirley always seems to enter at a gallop. Grant the author cleverness, though, in the way he has modernized the concerns of his estate-owning family. Where Chekhov’s landed gentry agonized over the decline of a spent Russian aristocracy, Wilson’s Talley clan laments the decline of idealism, a tack that can’t help resonating with baby boomers.
And one that has apparently resonated from the play’s first production, since the script has a rep for either attracting names or making them. William Hurt created the role of Ken off-Broadway, making a big enough impression that he landed his first film role (Altered States) in midrun. Broadway’s mounting originally featured a then-unknown Swoozie Kurtz as Gwen, and starred Christopher Reeve (fresh from playing Superman) as Ken. When Reeve left the cast to make a Supersequel, Richard Thomas made the leap from TV to Broadway, so pleasing critics that he instantly established himself as a substantial stage actor. (He then returned the favor, lending his small-screen, viewer-reassuring stardom to American Playhouse’s TV version of the play, which would otherwise have had to tone down its gay content considerably.)
Playing Gwen opposite Thomas on Broadway was a brassy young wannabe named Laraine Newman (Kurtz returned for the TV version), and the hunky 26-year-old love interest who swept both Reeve and Thomas up in his arms and carried them to the bedroom at the end of Act 1 was none other than Jeff Daniels, who hadn’t yet begun his dumb ‘n’ dumber film career.
WSC’s cast is likely to make a couple of local reps, as well. Barrett’s a phenomenal Gwen, barrelling into scenes with every nerve ending exposed and vibrating. Kay (who must be about twice Shirley’s age in real life, given the GWU credits in her bio) is a flat-out adolescent hoot. And Price’s dopey guitarist is as goofy as his dopey prince was in Cymbeline a few months back. The others are all accomplished, with Comlish’s paraplegic Ken as persuasive physically (the auditorium is intimate enough that you hear the click when he locks his supposedly wooden legs) as he is emotionally.
Henley has done more than get fine performances from his cast and a lovely, atmospheric production from his designers. He has also developed a new hybrid version of the play by mixing and matching scenes from Wilson’s various scripts. In the off-B’way version, the whole household knew that Ken intended to sell Gwen and John the Talley place from the very beginning. Wilson opted to add suspense for Broadway by letting the folks most affectedKen’s aunt, lover, and sisterlearn about this slowly. Also for Broadway, in the middle of the harrowing physical confrontation between Ken, John, and Jed that provides the play’s climax, the author inserted a baldly written themic-wrap-up speech in which Gwen laid out the play’s various lessons.
WSC’s production wisely excises that speech, but hangs onto most of the structural changes, serving the author about as well as he could be served.CP