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13 Jan 2018

An Important Play: Standout Performances Buoy Desert Rose's Production of 'Fifth of July'

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Monique Burke and Jason Hull in the Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Fifth of July. Monique Burke and Jason Hull in the Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Fifth of July.

Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July broke new ground in the theater world when it premiered in 1978—because it depicted gay characters as “normal” people rather than lisping queens. This makes it a worthy selection as the Desert Rose Playhouse’s annual Gay Heritage Production.

The play’s four week run begins this weekend, and the production, directed by Jim Strait, had some definite flaws on opening night—but it’s worth seeing.

The play is the last of three plays featuring the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri. The others are the one-act Talley’s Folly, about Sally Talley and her soon-to be husband Matt, and Talley and Son, about her father and grandfather.

Fifth of July revolves around Kenny Talley, Sally’s nephew and a gay Vietnam vet who lost his legs in the war; he is living in his childhood home with his botanist lover, Jed. As the play opens, Kenny is wrestling with whether or not to return to his former career as an English teacher. Faced with the prospect of stares and pity from his students over his physical condition, he opts not to.

Enter Ken’s sister, former flower-child June Talley, and her precocious daughter, Shirley. They have come to visit, along with longtime friends John Landis and his wife, Gwen. John is considering buying the Talley House and converting it into a recording studio to support his wife’s fledging career as a country-music singer. Later it is revealed that the relationship between June, Shirley, John and Gwen is more complicated than it seems.

Also along for the ride are Gwen’s guitarist, Weston Hurley, and Sally Talley, who carries her husband Matt’s ashes around in a box a year after his death. John’s desire to buy the family home does not sit well with Sally.

There are some nice moments of affection between Kenny (Brent Anderson) and Jed (Jason Hull) in this production, though there is a lack of intensity—a problem with much of this show. Anderson does a nice job of portraying the bottled-up self-hatred of being “a crippled fairy,” as he describes himself. However, much of his dialogue is hard to understand due to a lack of vocal projection. I’m not sure if this was an artistic choice for the character, but Anderson’s sometimes overly quiet speaking prevents the audience from really connecting with Kenny.

Jason Hull’s Jed is a steady presence, tending to both Kenny’s needs and his beloved garden. He is a likable character, though a little more onstage energy and intensity would let the audience see more of who he really is.

The pacing is slow at the top of the show, but really picks up with the arrival of Melanie Blue as Gwen. She bursts onto the stage full of bravado and a lust for life, thanks in part to her dreams of country-music stardom. Blue has terrific charisma and an energy level some other cast members should match. When young Shirley declares, “I intend never to have sex in my life!” randy Gwen wisely counters: “No honey, that’s not what you intend.”

Another strong member of the ensemble is Michael Pacas as Gwen’s hubby, John. His character has a lot on his mind—family secrets, possible record deals and a house purchase, all while he’s trying to keep his spitfire wife happy. He juggles it all, and manages to keep John likable.

As June Talley, Ann Van Haley has some nice moments of genuine affection for daughter Shirley, but often seems uncomfortable onstage. James Owens is perfectly cast as the laid-back, drugged-out guitarist Weston, and has some of the play’s best lines. When asked, “Don’t they have air in New Jersey?” he replies: “Oh, they got somethin’, but it ain’t air.”

Interestingly, the two standouts in the cast (other than Melanie Blue as Gwen) are the youngest and oldest actors. Every time young Monique Burke’s Shirley opens her mouth, the audience is riveted. Possessing boundless energy and charisma, I predict a bright future for Ms. Burke in the theater world. And valley favorite Alden West is nearly perfect as Aunt Sally. Whether recounting experiences with UFOs, losing track of the candy box containing her late husband’s ashes, or fighting to hang on to the family homestead, West hits all the right notes. She is a joy to watch.

While the Act I sometimes seems a bit disjointed, things fall into place much more in Act II. Many loose ends are tied up, and we do feel genuine affection for these folks as the lights go down.

The lighting, sound, set and costumes all work well. A shout-out goes to Steve Fisher’s work as the stage manager.

I have great respect for Jim Strait’s skills as a director, and I’m confident that he can help even up the ensemble. More vocal projection here and there, a couple of speed reads and an overall injection of energy would do the trick. Fifth of July is a worthwhile story, and there is enormous potential here.

Fifth of July is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 4, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is about two hours, with a 15-minute Intermission. For tickets or more information call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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