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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Fifth of July

It's not something Lanford invented, but it is something he happens to do awfully well. . . It's a kind of realism that I feel is the voice of the native American theater, but it is realism that is elevated in its language. It takes the language people speak and makes it more musical.--- Marshall Mason, Lanford Wilson's long time collaborator, on the playwright's "poetic lyrcism."

From Lanford Wilson's introductory notes in the Signature Theatre's Winter 2003 Newsletter:
I told him that I wanted to write a play about someone {like him} who had come home injured. . .I told him that I was thinking of making his character gay. --- Lanford Wilson to David, the student in his writing class whose legs were shot off in Vietnam.
Well, don't make him a downer. ---David
Lanford Wilson heeded the above quoted advice from David, the inspiration for Ken (Kenneth Talley Jr.). As David was in a happy relationship, so is Ken. The fact that Ken, unlike his role model, is gay man is noteworthy only in the sense that in 1977 it was unusual to introduce a gay relationship that was part of the play but not its thematic focal point.

Ken's inability to move forward with his life as a teacher even though it's been thirteen years since his legs were blown off by a land mine, would seem to make him a "downer" after all. Being the good listener he is, however, Wilson let himself be guided by David's admonition and wrote his play as a serio-comedy with an upbeat ending in which the Talley family is once again a functioning unit and Ken gathers strength from his shattered dreams. The only downer about seeing this fine revival is that, with another question-raising war likely to begin any day, it resonates with uncomfortable timeliness.

Like other plays in the Talley saga (see background notes at the end of the production notes below), the plot unfolds during Independence Day, in this case the evening of July 4th 1977 and the morning after. The setting is the large Talley home in rural Lebanon, the Missouri town where Wilson himself grew up.

The plot is jumpstarted by Ken's reservations about facing a classroom situation as a man hobbling about on artificial limbs, even though teaching is what he's eminently suited to do. (Robert Sean Leonard is superb as the conflicted Ken) the choice between remaining and teaching in Lebanon and selling off the family homestead to embark on a more anonymous city life takes on broader thematic layers, since the usually quiet house is full of opinionated visitors. As their assorted lost hopes and and anxieties are revealed, it becomes clear that what's at stake is for everyone to go forward from yesterday (the 4th of July) to the rest of their lives (the 5th of July and beyond), no matter what effort it takes. This being a serio-comedy, the reunion is peppered with humor and this being a Wilson play, the quirkiest characters are never carricatures but fully rounded human beings.

Aunt Sally (Pamela Payton-Wright) has come to Lebanon to scatter the ashes of her husband that she's been carrying around for too long and which still seem to resist being scattered. She's eccentric and with her own uncertainties on how and where to live the rest of her life, but she's sufficiently centered to shortstop calamity. Ken's once radical sister June (Jessalyn Gilsig) now has her hands full keeping her irrepressibly actress-y teen-aged daughter Shirley (Sarah Lord) in check, which turns their relationship into another survival situation.

Gwen Landis (Parker Posey), the old college chum and heiress whose political passions have been transformed into desire to become a country music star wants to buy the house from Ken and turn it into a recording studio. Her husband and manager, John (David Harbour), who happens to be Shirley's father, not only wants the house but his daughter.

To move from the deceptively slow and quiet beginning which finds Ken working on a paper by a boy who can't talk (a crippled student being the only kind he can deal with) to the more dramatic climax, the various relationships are ratcheted up like the weeds of the pristine English garden that Ken's lover Jed (Michael Gladis), a botanist, has planted on the grounds outside the Talley home. As Jed must remove the weeds to allow the garden to mature, so these erstwhile idealists must learn to discard growth impeding aspects of their pasts.

The conversations meander, but typical of Wilson's playwriting, these digressions end up having meaningful thematic underpinnings. Thus Wes (Ebon Moss-Bacharach), Gwen's guitarist-composer, tells a story about a group of Eskimos surviving by a rather gross means of food preservation. This leads to a heated discussion of whether his story does or does not qualify as a folk myth. Like the long exposition on cheese making in Book of Days, this is not irrelevant but eventually ties in to Ken's raising himself on his crutches with a "Cha-cha-cha " that signals that he too will do what he has to do to survive.

Jo Bonney most effectively navigates the play's shifts from comic to heart-clenching. She has her finger firmly on the tempo that reveals the emotions beneath the surfaces.

Fifth of July evolved during the playwright's association with Circle Rep when roles were written with specific actors in mind, but these characters are gifts to any good actor and this cast does not squander those gifts. Robert Sean Leonard handles his prosthetic legs with great credibility but, more importantly, conveys his vulnerability with great depth of feeling. This production's other box office draw, Parker Posey brings the just right firecracker flamboyance to the role of Gwen. Though her mind seems a vacuum fed by pot and drink, in the end she shows herself as a woman who's well aware of what's needed to control her life and her marriage.

The rest of the ensemble also merits high praise. Pamela Payton-Wright portrays Sally with warmth and humor. David Harbour's John Landis is full of aggression in his pursuit of Ken's house and June's daughter. Jessalyn Gilsig plays June with acerbity -- but not too much to convincingly mend her relationship with Shirley, a very promising Off--Broadway debut by Sarah Lord.

Michael Gladis is beautifully understated and sympathetic as the quiet man who is as patiently and steadfastly devoted to Ken as to his garden. Ebon Moss-Bacharach doesn't play his guitar but scores a big hit as the ingenuously funny Wes.

Richard Hoover's plant filled, comfortable living room evokes memories of lazy summer days in spacious houses of pre-Cathedral ceilinged homespun design. The handsome set swivels around to the exterior view in the second act and is invitingly lit by James Vermeulen. Also applause-worthy are Ann Hould-Ward's costumes-- especially those for Parker Posey.

Wilson's body of work is too large to do more than pick and choose for a varied sampling. So, we've now had what is probably his most produced play (and my least favorite), Burn This, mounted at the Union Square to accommodate the fans drawn by the star power of its lead, Ed Norton. We've also had the far stronger and more recent Book of Days, which was well acted, directed and very much a don't miss it -- which is also true of Fifth of July. Another recent play (2001), Rain Dance, concludes this invaluable tribute to an all too often undervalued playwright.

Burn This
Book of Days
Hot L Baltimore

Written by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Jo Bonney
Cast: Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Weston Hurley), Jessalyn Gilsig (June Talley), Michael Gladis (Jed Jenkins), David Harbour (John Landis), Robert Sean Leonard (Kenneth Talley Jr.), Sarah Lord (Shirley Talley), Parker Posey (Gwen Landis), Pamela Payton-Wright (Sall Friedman).
Set Design: Richard Hoover,
Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen
Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada
Fgiht direction: J. Steven White.
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Signature Theatre's Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St. (10th/11th Aves) 244-7529 web site
1/16/03-3/09/03 --extended to 3/23/03; opening 2/03/03
Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM, with matinees on Saturdays at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/01/03 press preview
The show extended to 4/06/03--with Michael Cerveris taking over Robert Sean Leonard's role
Some Background on the Play
  • Fifth of July was the first in a cycle of plays exploring the lives of the Talley clan, (Talley's Folly, Talley & Son, and A Tale Told), though chronologically the second
  • .
  • The play was first produced by the Circle Repertory Company on April 27, 1978. It starred William Hurt, Jonathan Hogan, Nancy Snyder, Jeff Daniels and Helen Stenborg.
  • It moved to the New Appollo on November 5, 1980 with Christopher Reeve (who, in an ironic twists of fate, lost the use of his legs in a riding accident) and Swoosie Kurtz as Gwen. Kurtz won the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Gwen Landis. Jeff Daniels won the Drama Desk award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Jed Jenkins.

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