Celebrated American playwright Lanford Wilson died last Thursday, March 24, in New Jersey. The cause of death was complications from pneumonia. He was only 73, and his death surprised and saddened many.
As fate would have it, the next evening—Friday night—here in Tucson, one of Wilson's most celebrated plays, Fifth of July, was dying on the small stage of the Cabaret Theater, upstairs at the Temple of Music and Art.
The Winding Road Theater Ensemble—a theater still in its infancy, although staffed by many experienced theater practitioners—is responsible for this coincidentally unhappy event. Just about every aspect of the production exhibits major faults, from questionable characterizations to stuttering pacing to a total lack of insight into Wilson's play. Fifth of July, along with Talley's Folly and Talley and Son, comprise Wilson's Talley Cycle trilogy. Winding Road opens Talley's Folly on Friday, April 1, and will run it and Fifth of July in repertory for the next couple of weeks.
Wilson, born in Lebanon, Mo., tried commercial art and writing short stories before he found his niche as a playwright. He helped invigorate the off-off-Broadway scene in the 1960s, and his success there developed into a respected presence on Broadway, although his heart continued to embrace an off-Broadway sensibility. This was demonstrated in his efforts to help form the Circle Repertory Company, a company of playwrights writing for a company of actors. His ear for capturing ordinary language and an ability to craft it into lyrical dialogue—which often overshadows actual plot—has garnered him a place in the American Theater Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Talley's Folly won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980, as well as the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.
Winding Road's production of Fifth of July unfortunately deconstructs Wilson's lyrical landscape rather than re-creating it. The production offers little sense of a whole story, or even an evocation of place and mood; rather, we see characters who have no idea how they fit together. It's not really the fault of Wilson's piece; rather, the lack of focus and any sense that something might be at stake is the unfortunate consequence of a disjointed approach by director Glen Coffman and company. In his director's notes, Coffman seems to understand where the richness of Wilson's play lies, but that understanding does not translate into the actual production.
The play's plot is a very loose one to begin with—and becomes totally unraveled in this production.
The time is 1977, and in rural Missouri, Ken Talley (Eric Anson), a gay paraplegic Vietnam veteran, lives with his lover, Jed (Christopher Johnson), in his family's home. He was to begin teaching at the local high school in the fall, but has since dropped that idea and professes an interest in selling his home so he can travel. Ken's sister June (Susan Kovitz) is visiting with her teenage daughter Shirley (Lucille Petty), along with Ken's aunt, Sally (Toni Press-Coffman), a likable but odd bird who, more than a year after her husband's death, is still carrying around his ashes in a Whitman's Sampler box. Joining them are Ken and June's childhood friend John (Brian Wees) and his totally drugged-out wife, Gwen (Jodi Ajanovic), who harbors dreams of becoming a country music star. They are accompanied by perpetually stoned guitarist Wes (Paul Matlock). John and Gwen are interested in buying the Talley home, ostensibly, at least, to install a music studio far from the stress of recording in Nashville—stress which locks Gwen's jaw, rendering her voiceless. However, John may have other motives.
Wilson has created some interesting characters in this entourage of burned out radicals from the '60s. However, this group of actors does not give them credible life. The trouble with character-driven plays is that characterizations must be strong and convincing. Absent a gripping plot to lend a sense of movement, at the very least, the characters must create a heightened sense of emotional resonance—something to engage us.
Most of the characterizations here are far from nuanced or convincing. If they are anything, they are one-note wonders, and when played together, they do not create a pleasing chord, but a dissonance which prevents any sense that these characters are involved in the same story—and that we might want to be involved in it, too. They are pieces which director Coffman has found no way to stitch together, so there is no strong unifying cohesiveness.
Coffman also has trouble blocking his eight characters on the tiny stage of the Cabaret Theater. The set pretty much fills the small space, and characters often seem to be lined up across the stage, erupting in movement from time to time—often when they have something to say, but sometimes for no discernable reason.
One could hope that some of these missteps might be corrected as the show finds its stride, but I'm not sure there is an incisive enough vision in this production for there actually to be a stride to hit.
Before the show, as the audience was told of Wilson's unexpected death, Coffman dedicated the theater's two productions to Wilson's memory. Let's hope that Talley's Folly redeems the theater's wish to celebrate Wilson's sizable contribution to the American theater.