Some times, a character serves as a microcosm of the play itself. In LSU Theatre’s production of “Fifth of July,” the role is that of Shirley Talley.
Unfortunately, that probably isn’t what playwright Lanford Wilson intended.
Like the 13-year-old Shirley, “Fifth of July” is full of bluster, pretence and overwrought emotion, clearly wishing to be seen as wiser and more profound than it really is. It is not without humor — more for some in the audience, depending on the good fortune of seat selection — but takes an awfully long time to say not very much.
Written by Lanford Wilson and directed by Richard Holden, the play is a tale of post-Vietnam War disillusionment set in small-town Missouri in 1977. Kenneth Talley Jr. (played by Michael Guillot) lost his legs during the war and lives in his childhood home, a farmhouse, with his boyfriend, Jed Jenkins (Curran Latas), a botanist who wants to turn the land into a formal, English garden. It’s a long-term project cast in doubt by recent events, and some old high school friends who have come to see them.
Gwen Landis (Mallory Osigian) has inherited a copper mining company and is being encouraged by her husband, John (Lance Benezech) to pursue a career singing country music. Talley suspects he is using that to distract her from his efforts to run the company behind her back, and John has offered to buy the Talley property to create a music studio for her. That offer, and Kenneth’s decision to not back out on plans to return to teaching, have a lot of things up in the air.
This reunion coincides with plans by Talley’s aunt, Sally Friedman (Miranda Rozas) to finally spread the ashes of her late husband, who died a year earlier. Talley’s sister, June (Lauren Stefanski) and niece, Shirley (Laine Korn), have come to be a part of the occasion.
That pretty much puts the rocket on the launching pad. Then … nothing … ever … seems … to … happen.
Talley can’t decide about his future. Sally can’t let go of the ashes. Gwen can’t get straight answers, and can’t get past some of her own past tragedies. Shirley can’t grow up fast enough. June can’t slow that process down. Even the simplest thing — John and Gwen getting dressed — takes forever.
Of course, those pauses are supposed to allow for the conversations that explore the past and drive the plot. But those conversations are plodding, disjointed and, in situations where there is crosstalk, largely unintelligible. One disadvantage of the Reilly Theatre, with seating on three sides, is that actors can be facing some parts of the audience while having their backs to others.
There was one big first-act scene where there was considerable such crosstalk — some of it apparently hilarious to those on one side of the theater who could hear some of what was being said, but not to those near my seat.
Essentially, it’s an angst-fest with undercurrents of deceit and resentment, and it’s hard to know who to pull for.
Sally, who seems more like an aging hippie than the younger generation that surrounds her? Jed, who mostly broods as he waits for decisions to be made that will affect his life? Gwen, who won life’s financial lottery but seems utterly ill-equipped to handle it?
All of the roles are credibly acted, and Korn nearly makes one believe she is actually 13, providing much of the comic relief. The rest of that function belongs to Chase Easley, who plays Weston Hurley, Gwen’s guitarist who embodies the stereotype of a musician who marches to the beat of his own unseen drummer.
The set work is quite good, and a projection screen behind the stage displays an image of a field behind the house that cleverly coincides with the time of day and activities.
First staged in 1978, “Fifth of July” may have resonated better in an era when much of America was struggling to shake off the bad dream of the Vietnam War and the social upheaval that surrounded it. Today, it feels like a play that just needs to get to the point.