Vonnegut's 'Happy Birthday, Wanda June' opens at Nimbus

Ernest Hemingway with Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens and German writer Ludwig Renn during Spanish Civil War, 1937
Ernest Hemingway with Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens and German writer Ludwig Renn during Spanish Civil War, 1937
From Wikimedia Commons. Photographer unknown.

This weekend, Nimbus Theatre opens its second full season in its northeast Minneapolis location with a production of Happy Birthday, Wanda June, a play by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. that opened off-Broadway in 1970. The satirical play, written during the Vietnam War, is loosely based on Homer's Odyssey, and is a critique of America after World War II and its obsession with heroism. It still has resonance today, says Josh Cragun, who directs the production.

At the center of the play is Harold Ryan (played by Kevin Carnahan), an uber-masculine war hero loosely based on Ernest Hemingway. Harold returns home after seven years of conquest to find it in disarray, as his wife is beset by suitors, his son barely knows him, and his violent conquering spirit no longer belongs in the world. 

Cragun was handed the script by a stage manager, and though he has read Vonnegut's novels before, he was not aware that he had written a play. "I loved it," he says. "What struck me was how accurate a metaphor Vonnegut had created for the behavior of America since World War II. The issues he had written about in the 1970s during the Vietnam War have stayed the same. [It's about] bad behavior despite good intentions."

Though the play was written over 40 years ago, Cragun says that even today it "speaks to our condition in America." The Cold War is over, but "America has decisions to make about what it's going to be to the world: the warrior or the hero," he says. "I thought that was worth doing in a presidential year. It's a conversation worth starting."

Later in life, Vonnegut was harsh on the play, and felt it was dated. However, Cragun believes that now that more time has passed, and the United States is just getting out of two wars, the play does reflect our reality.  

To aid the universality of the script, Cragun's design team has added a few anachronistic elements. The set reflects the late 1970s, and the costumes are designed in the style of the late 1980s, "to give us a feel that this is something that is ongoing," he says. However, Cragun hasn't changed any of Vonnegut's language, such as Harold's reminisces of the Spanish Civil War. "So much of the character is based on Hemingway, who was obsessed with Spain," Cragun says, although, after the play came out, Vonnegut apparently distanced it from being "just" Hemingway.  

"Really, what he's talking about is the sort of person who kills for fun, who is obsessed with the concept of heroism," says Cragun. For example, in the play Harold takes his son to a funeral where he walks him to the back to see the corpses, telling him that he has to get used to it in order to be a man.  

Nimbus, a company that did their first show in 2001, is happy to be starting their second full season in their space on Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis. "It's a fully operational theater at this point," Cragun says, though there are still some small improvements that they hope to make, such as upgrading the sound system and improving the façade outside the building. They also hope to start listing any rental productions that happen in the space on Nimbus's website. 


Happy Birthday, Wanda June
Saturday, October 6 through October 28
8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 3 p.m. Sundays
Nimbus Theatre
1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis

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The Nimbus Theater

1517 Central Ave. NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413



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