Changing times come to the fore in ‘Fifth of July’ 

click to enlarge From left, Josh Schell, Craig Marker and Elizabeth Benedict appear in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of “Fifth of July.” - COURTESY DAVID ALLEN
  • COURTESY DAVID ALLEN
  • From left, Josh Schell, Craig Marker and Elizabeth Benedict appear in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of “Fifth of July.”
Set in 1977, Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July” – part of Aurora Theatre Company’s revival of the late playwright’s “Talley trilogy” – is an engaging look at how one small group of friends and family deals with the demise of the idealistic ’60s and the oncoming ’80s.

Like “Talley’s Folly” (which runs concurrently on Aurora’s adjacent Harry’s UpStage), it is Independence Day night (and the following day), but 33 years later. (Wilson wrote “Fifth” earlier, though; it premiered on Broadway in 1980.)

Sally of “Folly” reappears here, now in her mid-60s, eccentric and strong-minded (a lovely, no-nonsense portrayal by Elizabeth Benedict) and reluctant to part with the ashes of her late husband, Matt.

She and the others have gathered at the now-dilapidated Talley family mansion (carefully detailed set by Richard Olmsted) in Lebanon, Mo.

Sally’s nephew Ken is the group’s central figure, a gay Vietnam vet who lost his legs in the war. Hired to teach at his old high school, he’s pretty sure he doesn’t want to make a spectacle of himself, with his prosthetic legs, by dealing with indifferent teenagers. He’s played with humor and subtlety – his inner turmoil carefully contained — by Craig Marker.

Also present are Ken’s best friend John (a focused John Landis); John’s heiress wife, Gwen (a delightfully loopy Nanci Zoppi) and Ken’s unmarried sister June (a tight-laced Jennifer Le Blanc), who gave her daughter to Aunt Sally to raise in order to pursue her revolutionary lifestyle back in the day.

Rounding out the group are the haughty, drama-queen daughter Shirley, a precocious 13 (too broadly played by Oceana Ortiz); Ken’s quiet, plant-loving partner Jed (a fine Josh Schell); and guitar-playing hippie Weston (Harold Pierce, hilariously earnest).

Ken, Gwen, John and June were comrades in arms, so to speak, during the turbulent ’60s in Berkeley (which makes this play such a good choice for Aurora). Now John’s a wheeling-dealing businessman, Gwen’s a burned-out-at-33 druggie and would-be singer, June apparently is rededicating herself to her difficult daughter and Ken is “on the edge of nowhere.”

As the group natters on in a lightly comical, Chekhovian-style-realism atmosphere, sensitively orchestrated by director Tom Ross, topics range from UFOs to a very funny scatological tale about Eskimos. But there’s a controversial issue that comes to the fore: whether or not to sell the Talley homestead.

Underneath the arguments and chatter is an ever-present and poignant vein of anxiety, confusion and hope.

REVIEW

Fifth of July

Presented by Aurora Theatre Company

Where: 2081 Addison St., Berkeley

When: Tuesdays through Sundays; closes June 7

Tickets: $32 to $50

Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Bio:
Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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