Ken Talley (c. r. Craig Marker*) debates his future with family and friends (l-r, Harold Pierce, John Girot*, Nanci Zoppi*, Oceana Ortiz, Jennifer LeBlanc*, Elizabeth Benedict*) in Aurora’s production of Fifth of July
Ken Talley (Craig Marker), center, debates his future with family and friends in Aurora’s production of Fifth of July. Photo: David Allen

One of the fresh, modern aspects of the 1978 Fifth of July by Pulitzer Prize winner Lanford Wilson (1937–2011) is that it concerns a gay couple whose sexuality is never questioned. Neither is the relationship the subject of angst, derision or other negative reaction — just love and acceptance. Unfortunately, a few other elements of the play seem slightly off, despite the fact that Fifth of July has much to offer.

It’s 1977, and we’re at the Lebanon, Missouri childhood home of Kenneth Talley, Jr. (Craig Marker) a legless Vietnam veteran, who lives with his partner, botanist Jed Jenkins (Josh Schell). Jed seems content to put down roots there by continuing to improve the English garden he has designed. But Ken is now reluctant to teach at the local high school as he had planned, and is considering selling the house.

Visiting Ken are some longtime friends from his 1960s days in Berkeley, copper conglomerate heiress Gwen Landis (Nanci Zoppi) and her assertive husband, John Landis (John Girot). Gwen dreams of becoming a country singer and is actively promoted by her husband. They are traveling with Gwen’s amusing guitar player, Weston Hurley (Harold Pierce). John thinks that the 19-room Talley house would make a fine music studio for Gwen. Or does John have ulterior motives?

Ken’s sister, June Talley (Jennifer Le Blanc) and her 13-going-on-23-year old drama queen daughter, Shirley (Oceana Ortiz) are staying at the family home to attend a relative’s funeral. Also present is Ken’s aunt, Sally Talley Friedman (Elizabeth Benedict), who, a year after the death of her husband Matt, still has his ashes in a candy box, uncertain of their proper disposition.

Sally and Matt may be familiar to those of you who have seen Aurora’s joyous production of Talley’s Folly, now playing at Aurora’s Theatre’s Harry’s Upstage through June 7, 2015. Like Fifth of July, Talley’s Folly is also a part of Wilson’s famed trilogy about the Talley family. Talley’s Folly takes place 33 years prior to Fifth of July and concerns a momentous evening between the couple. Aurora is presenting four private staged readings of the less-produced third drama, Talley & Son, beginning on April 27, 2015.

Ken, Sally, and Shirley (l-r, Craig Marker*, Elizabeth Benedict*, Oceana Ortiz) celebrate Jed’s royal rose in Aurora’s production of Fifth of July. Photo: David Allen
Ken, Sally, and Shirley (l-r, Craig Marker, Elizabeth Benedict, Oceana Ortiz) celebrate Jed’s royal rose in Aurora’s production of Fifth of July. Photo: David Allen

In its plot, Fifth of July resembles the later, but more familiar, 1983 film directed by Lawrence Kasdan, The Big Chill, with a touch of Chekhov thrown in. All the characters are at personal crossroads in their lives. By the end of the second act, decisions will have been reached and changes made.

The heady political days of the 60s and the group’s interpersonal relationships are rehashed. While secrets and betrayals are revealed, no one seems all that upset about them. No voices are ever raised, nor are emotions raw, even where there should be tension. Director Tom Ross, who is also Aurora’s artistic director, has kept the acting extremely understated, perhaps as a foil to the outsized performances by the charming Oceana Ortiz as Shirley and the sumptuous Nanci Zoppi as Gwen.

Another rationale for such restrained performances may be the small size of the stage. The intimacy of the 150-seat Aurora Theatre, where the audience sits on three sides of the open stage, is one of its joys. In Fifth of July, however, which has eight actors, the stage seems crowded. It is difficult to focus on a speaker yet see the other actors’ reactions simultaneously. We also lack awareness of the large size of the Talley homestead, which, in a sense, is another player in Fifth of July. And although these elements detract from the evening, Fifth of July is still largely a satisfying play.

Fifth of July debuted in New York City at the Circle Repertory Company in 1978, directed by Marshall W. Mason and starring William Hurt as Ken and Jeff Daniels, as Jed. The play made its Broadway debut in 1980, again directed by Marshall W. Mason with Jeff Daniels reprising the role of Jed, Christopher Reeve as Ken and Swoosie Kurtz as Gwen. The replacement actor for the role of Ken was Richard Thomas; Laraine Newman replaced Kurtz as Gwen. Kathy Bates was also a replacement in the role of June. A television film (now on DVD) was made in 1982, directed by Marshall W. Mason and Kirk Browning, starring Jeff Daniels, Swoosie Kurtz, Cynthia Nixon as June, and Richard Thomas as Ken.

Fifth of July runs through May 17, 2015. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre’s website.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...