The Last Talley

Fifth of July

Park Square Theatre

ONE OF THE few good plays to emerge from the cultural scrap heap of the 1970s was Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, though you wouldn't know it by seeing Park Square Theatre's muddled production. In a charitable mood, one might be persuaded that the unfocused, amateurish quality pervading the Park Square stage is reminiscent of the hundreds of forgettable low-tech, low-budget films that used to litter the late-night airwaves before infomercials came along. But for the most part, Park Square's version--under the direction of Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's Michael Brindisi--seems more infected by the ennui of the decade than informed by it.

Though written first, Fifth of July is chronologically the last of what has come to be known as Lanford Wilson's Talley Trilogy (though, like Star Wars, three more Talley plays are supposedly simmering in Wilson's head). The other two are the Pulitzer Prize-winning Talley's Folly and Talley & Son, both of which take place 33 years (to the day) before Fifth of July at the Talley family household in Lebanon, Missouri.

Unlike the stately, Southern, Tennessee-Williams-like quality of the earlier plays, Fifth of July looks much like a cross between Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and The Big Chill. As the action picks up in 1977, the Talley family household has been bequeathed to Sally Talley's nephew Ken (played by Matt Sciple), who now lives there with his lover Jed (Zach Curtis).

Sally Talley (T.K. Lumley)--the star of Talley's Folly--is visiting so that she can finally (after a year of grieving) sprinkle her departed husband's ashes on the family property. Also visiting for the holiday are Ken's sister June (Jennifer Page), her precocious 13-year-old daughter Shirley, and two of Ken and June's hippie friends, John and Gwen Landis (Joey Metzger and Carolyn Pool), to whom Ken is secretly trying to sell the family property.

But the house and the ashes and the Fourth of July are really little more than whopping, multilayered metaphors for "the past," which every character in the play, having come of age, must now wrestle with. The most disappointing aspect of Park Square's production is the annoying extent to which the performances neglect this legacy, choosing instead a process of characterization by cliché. Ken is "the bitter Vietnam vet"; Jed is "the supportive but perturbed partner"; Sally Talley is "the spacy aunt"; Shirley is "the precocious niece"; and so on. The only character to come across as a three-dimensional human being whose soul is a battered byproduct of her experience is Gwen, the manic copper-heiress-cum-pop-singer-wannabe. Despite a long list of personal tragedies, Gwen still looks at the world (quite literally) through rose-colored glasses. But even in this case, the effectiveness of Carolyn Pool's performance is more a matter of scattering loads of unfocused energy around the stage than crafting a complex, noteworthy character.

Likewise, Park Square's production as a whole seldom digs into the deeper layers of Wilson's play, where these characters are bound by a veritable catalogue of unresolved grievances and resentments. Instead, the Park Square players skip along the surface of the play, trying to milk as much humor as possible out of Wilson's abundant wit, all but ignoring the rich subtext that makes the play so funny and--if done well--unnerving. There is some amusing drug humor; and dialogue littered with such classic lingo as "right on," "heavy," "babe," "doll," "far out," and "dig it," can hardly fail to entertain on some level. But the end result is a production that essentially transforms Fifth of July into a piece of retro '70s shtick, and harkens back to Park Square's unfortunate old days, when good plays were routinely and relentlessly rendered mediocre.

Incidentally, Fifth of July is also heralded as one of the first American plays ever to treat a gay relationship as a normal facet of everyday life. In other words, Ken and Jed's relationship in the play is largely remarkable for its unremarkableness. Which is still the case here--along with virtually everything else.

Fifth of July continues at Park Square Theatre through June 28; call 291-7005.

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