(clockwise from top left) Cort Huckabone, Jenn Robbins, Sean Gray and Katherine Prenovost as the burned-out radicals of Fifth of July.
By Cory Bilicko
Relishing her second opportunity to direct Fifth of July a quarter century after her first go at it, Phyllis B. Gitlin, at the helm of the Long Beach Playhouse’s current Studio production of the Lanford Wilson play, says this time around is “more thought provoking and much more of an eye-opening journey.”
Set in a post-Vietnam-War rural Missouri town, Fifth of July centers around Kenneth Talley, Jr. (Sean Gray), a gay veteran of the war, which rendered him a paraplegic. Living in his childhood home on the Talley farm with his botanist boyfriend Jed (Scott T. Fin), Kenneth has recently decided not to return to his former high school to teach English. Visiting the couple are Ken’s sister June (Jenn Robbins) and her daughter Shirley (Tara Lynne Barr), as well as longtime friends John (Cort Huckabone) and his wife Gwen (Katherine Prenovost), who is the heiress of a large industrial copper company. John is supposedly visiting to buy the home to convert it into a recording studio in support of Gwen’s singing career, but revelations are made about the characters’ relationships that expose ulterior motives. Ken suspects the singing career is a ploy to divert Gwen so that John can assume control of her business. The group has also gathered to participate in an informal memorial service for Matt, whose ashes have been kept in a candy box for a year by Ken’s Aunt Sally (Harriet Whitmyer). The play culminates with a bidding war for the house.
Plot points aside though, at its core, Fifth of July is a dramatization of the long-lasting effects of war, beyond those that are most obvious. Indeed, Kenneth lost both his legs in Vietnam and must use crutches to get around, but the psychological impact of that tragedy seems more palpable than the physical. However, the damage doesn’t stop there. June had become a vehement activist against the war, dedicating years of her life to the cause, at the expense of her relationship with the daughter from whom she was alienated while protesting. Said daughter Shirley is now a force with which to be reckoned, and June is left to contemplate the value of her activism. Her relationship with Ken in this story takes for granted that they’ve already been through the shock, heartache, physical therapy and tears and are now at a place where they can just speak freely as siblings, with all the frustration, bitterness and disappointment those “grown-up” brother/sister relations engender.
There’s a lot going on here below the surface, and the “second time around” director has a generally strong cast of players to help find the subtext, wit and calamity in the numerous complex relationships, despite a slump of “character development” during the first 15 minutes or so. It all comes together and gets moving soon enough (on one of the most realistic and effective sets in recent Studio history), but, keep in mind, the fifth of July is the day after the fireworks. Likewise, Wilson’s narrative is a shrewd examination of what comes after the explosions, the break-ups and the regrets.
Fifth of July will run in the Studio Theatre at Long Beach Playhouse April 17 through May 23. Tickets are available by calling the box office at (562) 494-1014 or online at www.lbph.com.