Cleveland, Ohio — The Fourth of July has its fair share of fireworks, but it is nothing compared to Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Play House’s MFA Acting Program’s explosively powerful production of “Fifth of July.”
Ken, a paraplegic and Vietnam veteran, lives in his childhood home in Lebanon, Missouri with his boyfriend, Jed, in the year 1977. Botanist Jed has quite literally planted roots at the Lebanon farm house, but Ken wants to escape the town and the teaching job awaiting him at his former high school.
Ken’s longtime friends and married couple, John and Gwen, visit the home to scope out purchasing the property in order to convert it into a recording studio. John supports Gwen’s dreams of becoming a country star so that he can backhandedly run the massive copper company she inherited.
Ken’s sister, June, and her daughter, Shirley, visit the home for less pleasant reasons. Ken and June’s Aunt Sally has carried around her dead husband’s ashes for a year, and it is finally time to scatter his remains in the river by the boathouse. As the group reminisces about the past and plans their uncertain futures, ideals clash and unpleasantries erupt.
Written in 1978, Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July” is part of the Talley Trilogy, a collection of plays by Wilson that revolve around this family, with all plays being set completely or partially on July fourth.
In “Fifth of July,” Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilson has penned dialogue that is stunningly realistic. Under the careful direction of Donald Carrier and staged in the Helen, CWRU/CPH’s delivery of the material is just as impressively authentic.
Each member of the company feels at ease with one another and their surroundings, and it’s this ease and an attention to detail that translates realism to the audience. This is well showcased by Coner Canning and Alex Brightwell, who play Jed and Ken, respectively.
As Jed crosses the room to water his plants, Canning nonchalantly runs a hand through Brightwell’s hair in passing. Similarly, Brightwell will casually lean up against Canning when the two are in close vicinity. It is loving glances and touches like these that create a sense of intimacy and comfort that sells Ken and Jed’s romantic relationship.
The same loving relationship is also well depicted by Elisabeth Yancey as Gwen and Gregory James as John. The two often find ways to hold the other in a completely natural fashion that is befitting of a married couple.
While these actors appear to feed off of one another, their characters are as individual and unique as they are interesting.
Brightwell’s Ken is sarcastic and witty. The loss of his mobility is often only addressed through jokes, but when the true pain of being crippled surfaces, Brightwell truly shines. Jed’s mellow nature is well played by Canning and is a nice contrast to Ken.
While Canning is a comfort, James’ John is conniving and properly untrustworthy. Tagging along to the house is Gwen’s guitarist, Wes. Played by the enjoyable Abdul Seidu, Wes’ drug-influenced behavior is quite endearing. Yancey is wonderfully energetic as the foul-mouthed, slightly eccentric Gwen. Yancey’s enthusiasm and total embodiment of the character is beautiful.
The same can be said for Comfort Dolo, who plays the 13-year-old Shirley. Believing that she is destined for greatness and behaving much older than she truly is, Shirly is a character that should be played with an absurd amount of drama and grandiose, of which, Dolo fits the bill.
Kasey Connolloy as Shirly’s mother, June, is cynical and guarded, but for good reason. Connolloy shows just enough humanity under a hard exterior to be truly likable. Courtney Stennett as Sally is a recognizable family figure. Her sarcasm and sass depict the “matronly aunt” just as well as her small steps and high-waisted pants depict her age.
While the show is wonderfully realistic, Frankie Teuber’s set design is less so. Act one takes place on the inside of the Lebanon farm house, where a curtained doorway appears to lead to nowhere. The inside of the house is also a bizarre mixture of outdoor paneling and smooth walls. During intermission, the set is converted so that the inside living space becomes an outdoor porch. While the outside setting looks better than the inside setting, the conversion is awkward.
Dressed by costume designer Jeffrey Van Curtis, every character looks like they’re indubitably living in the ‘70s. Designer Maureen E. Patterson provides bright lighting resembling daylight for the outside porch setting, while the dimming of lights for certain scenes is effective at creating an intimate feel. Sound designer James C. Swonger provides the sounds of crickets to supplement the outside feel.
What CWRU/CPH’s production does so well is transition seamlessly between everyday conversation and the exploration of deeper, more significant topics. Whether it was running from the draft, enlisting in the army or joining anti-war movements, the Vietnam War had, and even continues to have, an affect on most of the characters. Moments that analyze the disillusionment of America and delve into the hopelessness of everyday citizens rallying against the all-powerful government can very well be reminiscent of modern times.
“Fifth of July” doesn’t feature any actual fireworks, but the spectacle on stage is just as stunning.
WHERE: The Helen, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through April 7th
TICKETS & INFO: $20, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com
Header photo: The cast of “Fifth of July.” Photo by Michelle Berki.