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Legless: (l-r) Shane McRae, Jennifer Mudge, David Wilson Barnes, Noah Bean in Fifth of July.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Sheer Folly

By Ralph Hammann

Fifth of July

By Lanford Wilson, directed by Terry Kinney

Williamstown Theatre Festival, through Aug. 22

There’s a cleverness in Nich olas Martin’s decision to present Fifth of July after Our Town. Both plays look at larger, farther-reaching issues through the very specific microcosms of small-town life in America. Our Town, a masterpiece, arrives at universal truths about what it means to live and die on this planet; Fifth of July, a minor work, examines the impact of the Vietnam War on the country’s psyche and reflects on life’s meaning following an era of lost or lessened values. It is a tribute to both plays that their messages manage to transcend troubled productions.

Lanford Wilson’s play (part of a trilogy that includes Talley’s Folly and Talley and Son) struggles to be heard above a cast that pushes too hard and feels surprisingly under-rehearsed for a show that has already had a run at the Bay Street Theatre, which is co-producing it with the WTF.

This is not Wilson writing at his most lean and poetic, as in Talley’s Folly, nor his most comic and wide-ranging, as in Hot L Baltimore. He forces us to endure too much aimless exposition to introduce the characters who have gathered at the gently declining Talley household for a period of reckoning on July 5, 1977.

These include a quartet of the previous era’s casualties and disappointments: Kenneth Talley (who lost both his legs and his grounding in Vietnam); his former lover, John Landis, who left the country and lost his moral compass; John’s heiress musician wife Gwen, who wants to buy the Talley estate; and Kenneth’s unmarried sister (another of John’s former lovers), June Talley, who lost her spirit. There are also Kenneth’s present lover, Jed, who tenderly cares for the Talley property; Shirley Talley, June’s daydreaming, illegitimate daughter; Weston, Gwen’s vacuous, guitar-strumming songwriter; and Sally Friedman, Kenneth and June’s plainspoken aunt who carries the ashes of her husband in a candy box.

It is telling that apart from Jed, and periodically Sally, the most affecting character in this production remains offstage. That would be Matt Friedman, Sally’s deceased husband, a sweet man who loved the Talley place and was disliked by everyone on it as much for his gentility and agreeableness as for his Jewish heritage. Somewhat through Elizabeth Franz’s delivery as Sally, but more through the grace of Wilson’s writing, Matt becomes a vital presence whom we admire and care more about than most of the living characters. Matt loved the promise of America and its heartland; as his memory is evoked by Sally, that dream casts a transformative power.

This mantle has been taken on by Jed, the newest outsider to become taken with the Talley place. The role becomes the highlight of the production through Noah Bean’s quiet, assured and poignant performance, which conveys a rich interior life. While Kenneth, Gwen, John and June storm about the stage and the future of the Talley heritage lies in precarious balance, Bean’s restrained pain and disappointment give the production its most truthful emotional moorings.

Franz sometimes achieves this as Sally, especially in the better-written and -performed second act. Although there is something a shade too forced and deliberate about her performance, at least it is a performance that tries to excavate the layers of Wilson’s characterization and the Chekovian tragedy he has attempted, with uneven results, to craft out of a moment in history when America forsook what was good about its past and badly lost its way.

In the key role of Kenneth, Shane McRae does not seem fully committed to the text and never ascends adequacy. Neither David Wilson Barnes, as John, nor Kellie Overbey as June create a character with sufficient depth to invite any empathy. The other two females screech and caterwaul their lines into incomprehensibility while doing nothing to make their characters anything more than caricatures. The parts may offer great challenges, but they are not insurmountable with actors possessing greater resources and direction that knows when to pull in the reins.

Beyond the overacting, there is far too much shouting instead of projection. They may be trying to overcome the lousy acoustics in the ’62 Center’s main auditorium, but the overcompensation—the worst I have heard in here in six years—erects a barrier that makes it difficult to enter Wilson’s landscape, which has been nicely designed by David Gallo and adeptly lit, replete with lighting bugs, by David Weiner.

As this is the end of the season for the WTF, compliments are due the literary department’s dramaturgs for restoring a literacy to the program notes that has been absent in recent years.

 


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