Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 32
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
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PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER: Jed (Daniel Rattner, behind) comforts his troubled lover Ken (Tyler Weaks), a paraplegic Vietnam veteran, in a quiet moment amidst a conflict-ridden reunion in Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July” (1978), playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through August 15.

PST Stages Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July” for Season Finale; >Comic Drama Presents Troubled Souls in Post-Vietnam Reunion

Donald Gilpin

Some plays thrive in a minimalist setting. Meticulously detailed realistic settings are not always more effective than abstract, unrealistic, sets. There are plays, however, that depend on a realistic set to bring to life the world of the drama. Without those concrete objects — the furniture, the natural surroundings, the particular objects that occupy the characters’ lives — the actors may struggle in vain to embody the people of the play and to perform convincingly the actions that those people carry out during the course of the evening.

Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July (1978) is set, according to the script, on “the large sun porch/family room of a prosperous southern Missouri farmhouse.” Redolent with meaning for all the characters of the play, from 13-year-old Shirley Talley who is exploring her grandmother’s old clothes trunk to the 64-year-old Sally Friedman, who has returned “home” to scatter her husband’s ashes, that house, almost like a character in its own right, becomes the focus of the climactic conflict in the play.

Princeton Summer Theater’s current production, running for just one more weekend, goes for an unrealistic, minimalist, abstract design — no porch, no furniture, no props, with purple floor and just four huge black steps constituting the playing area. The language of the play and the actions of the characters do not succeed in fully creating the world of this play. The highly talented, energetic young eight-person ensemble endeavors nobly to tell this story and to embody these richly drawn characters, all fighting to put their lives together and move on in the decade after the Vietnam War. They deliver their lines with skill and understanding. They enact the numerous conflicts and comedies that constitute the plot of the play. They’re all trying hard, but the austere setting, looking like the bleachers at a football game, is a daunting obstacle to the creation of this poignant world and of these fragile, damaged, emotionally engaging characters. Without the context provided by realistic set and props, the often-complex plot becomes difficult to follow and the characters lack grounding and credibility. Clearly the playwright feels empathy for these flawed, self-absorbed characters, their passions, and their troubled relationships. This PST production, however, despite moments of brilliant acting and character work, had difficulty conveying to its opening night audience: 1) a clear understanding of this world and the context of these lives; and 2) a compassion, a deep caring for the struggles and the ultimate fates of these eight lonely souls.

Fifth of July is a sort of historical piece, set in 1977, and clearly these characters are products of the Vietnam era and its aftermath. Not unlike Anton Chekhov, however, Mr. Wilson gives center stage to his characters, their inner worlds, and their meandering, often seemingly purposeless lives. Their particular fears and losses, hopes and dreams, readily acquire universal significance.

Tyler Weaks as Kenneth Talley, paraplegic Vietnam veteran, a role created by William Hurt Off-Broadway, then Christopher Reeve (followed by Richard Thomas) in the 1980 Broadway production, is sensitive and sympathetic, principled and angry, as he works out his difficult relationships with the other characters and debates whether to sell the family farmhouse and move to the city or stay in Lebanon, Missouri and confront a daunting teaching assignment in the fall. As Ken’s lover Jed, Daniel Rattner takes on a demanding, often silent role. The garden he has planted becomes a preoccupation for him and a controlling metaphor for the whole play.

Veronica Siverd as Ken’s sister June is sharp-tongued and articulate as she battles through past and present conflicts with her histrionic daughter Shirley (Heather May), then her brother Ken and her old, now married friends John (Andy Linz) and Gwen (Dominique Salerno). Mr. Linz presents a deceptively jovial, acquisitive — in more ways than one — businessman, and Ms. Salerno, in a role played by Swoosie Kurtz on Broadway, portrays an heiress, with intense neuroses, a colorfully, sometimes humorous, foul mouth, and a burning desire to become a rock star.

Ms. May, artistic director of the 2010 PST Company and a star of previous productions this summer, is miscast here. Though she brings color and flair to the role of Shirley, she is less than convincing as a 13-year-old.

As the eccentric Aunt Sally, Rebecca Foresman provides a credible character/age stretch and, in addition to achieving her goal of scattering her husband’s ashes, which she carries around in a Whitman’s Sampler box, she becomes increasingly instrumental in the resolution of the major conflict of the play. (Her romantic courtship and marriage more than 30 years earlier was the subject of Talley’s Folly, which Mr. Wilson wrote a year after Fifth of July.)

Weston Hurley, a young hippie musician/songwriter working with Gwen, memorably created here by the ingenious Sean Fennell, lives delightfully and often distractedly in a world of his own. He contributes humor and his own brand of wisdom to the proceedings.

Direction here is by Kip Williams, visiting from Australia, where he is currently studying at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. Mr. Williams and Ms. May were the set designers, with lighting by technical director Allen Grimm and costume design also by Ms. May.

Though the PST Company often seems to be fighting an uphill battle against their misguided set design here, this production offers much of interest and entertainment value. These are eight richly varied, idiosyncratic, three-dimensional characters. The dialogue mostly rings true to life and resonates with poignancy and humor. The world of the play, at times presented here with memorable clarity and color, is an affecting portrayal of a memorable period in the cultural and emotional history of our country. Princeton Summer Theater 2010 completes a successful season — from Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance and Fifth of July. As Ms. May says in her concluding artistic director’s note, “this group has explored huge themes and stories of the desires of the human heart with tireless artistic ingenuity.” Their audiences have been much entertained and enriched by the experience.

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