Theater Review – A “Fifth” with Punch

Just as the ragtag city of Baltimore is the muse of filmmaker John Waters, playwright Lanford Wilson finds his inspiration in Lebanon, Missouri. Sitting in the south-central part of the state like an appendage to the Lake of the Ozarks, the town is where Wilson was birthed in 1937 and is the setting of his acclaimed theatrical triptych referred to as “The Talley Trilogy.” This summer, the troupe housed at the theater in Union Station known as Kansas City Actors Theatre stages all three – “Talley’s Folly,” “Talley & Son”, and “Fifth of July” – in a repertory format that speaks to the remarkable versatility of this theater company and the talented actors at its core.
The plays share healthy strands of DNA as all are set in and around the big, rambling Talley home. But two of them are like twins to the one that’s more a close-knit cousin: “Talley’s Folly” and “Talley & Son” unfold on Independence Day in 1944 whereas “Fifth of July” visits certain Talleys and friends on the same day (and, per the title, the day after) 33 years later. Based solely on the strength of the hilarious yet moving “Fifth of July”, the trilogy could very well rank among the most ambitious cultural event of the year.
As “Fifth of July” opens, Ken Talley (Brian Paulette) sits stiffly at a desk listening to a cassette tape of a young man trying to tell a story through a severe stutter. Strewn around the room is the more than circumstantial evidence – chiefly, empty beer, booze and wine bottles – that a raucous party went down the night before. Soon enough the audience learns that Ken is gay and partnered with the much younger Jed (David Graham Jones), who possesses the shade of green thumb honed from a master’s degree in botany. A good eye spots that a cane and a pair of crutches are propped against the desk; they belong to Ken, who lost both legs above knee in Vietnam.
The living room quickly becomes as busy and buzzy as a train station. Coming together for both the holiday and the much-delayed scattering of Ken’s uncle’s ashes are his sister, June (Melinda McCrary), and her melodramatic teenage daughter (Magdalene Vick); his disorganized Aunt Sally (Kathleen Warfel); two roommates from his Berkeley days, John and Gwen (Scott Cordes and Cathy Barnett), who presently live in Nashville getting along handsomely with Gwen’s daddy’s copper fortune; and the couple’s tag-along friend, Weston (Ben Newman), a non-sequitur- spewing folk singer. That each character is composed of both a fascinating narrative and compelling back-story can be credited to the way in which director Mark Robbins has perfectly cast this show.
Several small – but hardly unimportant – subplots beautifully congeal to make a piece of theater as riveting as any you’ll see in Kansas City right now. The show is at once wildly funny (especially Barnett’s Gwen, who is the kind of kooky broad that would wear that moniker like a badge) and, when the relevant characters recall their Vietnam-era outrage and protestations, heart-wrenchingly sad. As June remembers her idealism of the time when she felt her voice could change the world, you can’t help but think about the hollow, nearly non-existent anti-war efforts of today’s youth.
Theatergoers unfamiliar with Wilson’s work are advised to enter “Fifth of July” unwarned and unschooled. It’s best consumed fresh and any documentation of this turn or that twist would only serve to erase the unbridled pleasure I experienced sitting in the theater. The production (which rotates with the other two plays through September 3, including two dates, July 30 and August 26, when the entire trilogy can be seen in one day) unfolds like the best independent film you never saw.
Tickets can be purchased by calling (816) 460-2297. More information is available at: www.kcactors.org

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