Lanford Wilson’s Broadway hit Fifth Of July gets an intimate staging by the esteemed The Production Company, and while I can’t confess to being a fan of the play itself, there are good reasons for those who are to catch its latest revival.

Fifth Of July has much in common with Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, both play and film reuniting 1960s friends in a then contemporary late-1970s setting. Its cast of characters include paraplegic Vietnam vet Ken (Scott Victor Nelson) and his botanist boyfriend Jed (Johnny Patrick Yoder), their out-of-town visitors June (Jennifer Sorenson), June’s daughter Shirley (Margaret Dwyer), and married couple John (Christopher Carver) and Gwen (Jen Albert). Also visiting are Gwen’s guitarist Weston (Rob Herring) and Ken and June’s Aunt Sally (Judy Nazemetz).

Wilson smacks us down right in the middle of this family-and-friends reunion and has all eight characters flitting from one subject of conversation to another without providing providing sufficient back story, making for a talky, hard-to-follow first act, or at least it was so for this reviewer. I therefore provide a cast-of-characters scorecard that might prove helpful to the uninitiated:

Ken and Jed are living in Ken’s family home in Lebanon, Missouri, with Ken now having second thoughts about teaching English at the local high school this coming year. Longtime friend Gwen is heiress to a copper conglomerate who hopes to purchase Ken and Jed’s home, convert it into a recording studio, and kickstart a singing career. June is Ken’s unmarried sister, whose thirteen-year-old daughter Shirley may be John’s real motivation for returning to Missouri, the now married man having been one of June’s lovers a baker’s dozen or so years ago. Sally is Ken and June’s aunt, who has been carrying her late husband’s ashes in a candy box for the past year, prompting nephew and niece to suggest that now might be a good time to scatter them. Weston is stoned throughout the weekend. Oh, and there’s going to be someone’s funeral on the Fifth Of July (though not one of the above-mentioned characters’).

Even with the above in mind, you may find Fifth Of July overly wordy, something which may well be par for the course in a weekend reunion, but not necessarily food for compelling drama. A post-performance perusal of a Fifth Of July synopsis reveals just how much I missed as I attempted to navigate the seas of Wilson’s script, which may be considerably easier to do the second time around but which proves confusing at first listen. Then again the synopsis writer may have been making things up to fill in Wilson’s blanks.

This being said, there is much very good work being done on the Lex Theatre stage under August Viverito’s direction. I liked Carver’s take on John (the shirt unbuttoned from hairy chest to naval says it all) and the way Albert captures Gwen’s many quirks. Nelson and Yoder make for a believable couple, and Sorenson has some very good moments as June. The ProdCo staple Herring is a non-stop treat as stoner Weston, and plays a mean guitar as well. Nazemetz too has some powerful scenes as Sally, but it is a performance that could be taken down a notch or two in a setting as intimate as the Lex. Dwyer, so marvelous in To Kill A Mockingbird, may not have been the best choice for Shirley, the role calling for someone who can easily pass for thirteen (i.e. no older than fourteen or fifteen in real life) and thereby make the barely pubescent teen’s precociousness charming rather than insufferable.

Viverito is in triple-threat mode this production around, having designed Fifth Of July’s terrific Talley home set, which transforms effectively from interior to exterior-interior for Act Two with the addition of some garden chairs and lighting changes, the latter thanks to Viverito’s excellent lighting design. Shon LeBlanc’s spot-on late-‘70s costumes and sound designer TwoLips Studio’s ‘60s/‘70s background music selections place us smack dab in the post-Vietnam War era. Fifth Of July is produced by Viverito and T L Kolman with Kolman assistant director and Land Allison stage manager.

Though Fifth Of July doesn’t match the Best Of The ProdCo (Amadeus, Copenhagen, Sweeney Todd topping that list), it is nonetheless a quality production put together with care and commitment, and one that Lanford Wilson fans could well welcome with enthusiasm.

The Production Company at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
May 20, 2011

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