Fifth of July
An octet of family and long-time friends collect in the small living room literally at the audience’s feet in the intimate setting of the Aurora. Night has set in on July 4, 1977. Before twenty-four hours pass, a number of major transitions are going to occur, some more easily and happily than others. Hopes and relationships rooted in the turbulent but anything-is-possible 1960s have in many cases withered away in Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July. A useless and horrible war; overuse of pills, pot, and worse; and naïve beliefs that posters, marches, and an occasional Molotov cocktail can awaken a nation have all come home to roost for various ones of our gathered clan. Each is looking for some new beginning, but on July 4 none is totally sure what that will look like in the end.
Sally Friedman has been storing her beloved husband’s ashes in a Whitman candy box for a year, opening the lid once a day for him to breathe the fresh air of the Lebanon, Missouri countryside near the dock where they once declared their love, 33 years prior. She is soon to leave her family’s heritage, 19-room house for a retirement center in California (living next to a brother and his wife she has never liked) but must first reluctantly scatter her Matt’s ashes to the earth before flying westward. Family and friends have come to support and to ensure the task gets done, but some have arrived with other agenda in mind, too. We slowly discover just how tangled the web of relationships is and how deep are wounds within and among them. But along with them, we also get to enjoy the happier recollections of those bygone ‘60s and to revel in the enthusiasm and pipe dreams of the new generation, especially as represented by young Shirley Talley.
As thirteen-year-old Shirley, Oceana Ortiz almost steals the show the entire production. Her every entry is worthy of a close-up camera shot as she reincarnates in Betty Grable style the starlets of the 1940s and 50s, complete with evening wear, swooping gestures, and the overly sophisticated voice of the gentry class. She delights those on stage and those watching as she fawns, flashes, and faints in ever more drama. Her dreams of future stardom and greatness are in great contrast to the spent and retread dreams of the older others surrounding her. She is the Puck who keeps pulling the cynical, quarrelling, and morose individuals out of their funk. But like the others, young Shirley too will face an important turning point on this 5th of July.
Like the 1960s, our gathering is full of quirk and eclectics. John Landis (a lanky and impatient John Girot) is married to copper heiress and rising singing star Gwen (Nancy Zoppi) who cannot stop popping and snorting various substances and who is much like an over-grown Shirley in over-blown dramatics and dreaming. John was and is still entangled in ways to be discovered with a brother and sister pair, Kenneth and June Talley. A Vietnam War veteran and now crippled after losing his legs, Kenneth (the very convincing Craig Marker) lives with his lover Jed Jenkins (Josh Schell), a master-degreed horticulturist who is the most grounded of all this clan. June is a former left-wing activist and troublemaker who now must figure out if and how to be Shirley’s mom. And somewhere in orbit around them all is Gwen’s band member Weston (Harold Pierce) who is tripping around and looking for UFOs in the Missouri sky.
With such a group, a lot can happen; and a lot does. But along the way, each member confronts new realities of his/her 1977, makes important decisions, and resolves one way or another issues that have simmered for years and in some cases boiled over in front of us all. In the end, they each eave with new resolve; and we leave having been touched by their emotional and impacting awakenings and transformations.
Fifth of July has now closed at the Aurora Theater, having run April 17-May 17, 2015.
Rating: 5 E