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First-Rate 'Fifth' Captures Time and Place

November 09, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FULLERTON — There's a special quality about most of Lanford Wilson's plays, a mixture of poetry, naturalism and a narrative flavor that speaks unmistakably about his time. This is particularly true in his Talley trilogy, of which "The Fifth of July" is the second part.

The Talleys, of Lebanon, Mo., are one of those old, established families helpless against the radical social changes that took place in American life after World War II.

Their status was altered forever in the booming '50s, and their values crumbled during the volatile '60s and '70s. The Talleys left by 1977, when "July" takes place, are a vastly different breed from those who violently objected 30 years earlier to the marriage of young Sally Talley to Jewish Matt Friedman in "Talley's Folly," the trilogy's first play.

That sense of a crumbling dynasty runs throughout director Amy Luskey-Barth's staging at the Vanguard Theatre, along with the feeling that, like the Phoenix, this generation will rise to meet its own notions of achievement.

Ken Talley Jr. (Tony Masters), has returned legless from Vietnam, and he's reluctant to return to teaching. He wants to sell everything and head for parts exotic. But his botanist lover, Jed Jenkins (Jeff Castle), has many plans for the estate, including a formal garden that will take 20 years to mature.

The Landises (David Leeper, Jill Cary Martin), friends from the group's war-protest days, are taking her vast riches and trying to buy her a recording career. Ken's sister, June (Heather Smith), has her own definite ideas about the estate and Ken's teaching career.

And then there's Aunt Sally (Judy Jones), 30 years after her marriage and a widow, who holds the ace in the situation, along with her husband's ashes, which seem determined not to get scattered.

Wilson says this dysfunctional family will eventually function, and in this production it looks as though it will. Luskey-Barth points that up in her staging, with explicitly correct tempos and rhythms that clarify the powerful emotions beneath the action. She also knows where Wilson's abundant humor is and makes the most of it.

Masters and Castle are outstanding as the lovers, with a strong thread always between them of affection and intelligence. Their stronger scenes are the most powerful. Smith, as the forthright sister, and Marisa Schuber, as her precocious, flamboyant 13-year-old, Shirley, maintain a marvelous balance between a mother and daughter trying to find each other.

Jones' Sally has an exceptional warmth barely hidden by her outspokenness; Leeper and Martin are on target with their hungry, early-yuppie greed--she emotionally shattered, he grimly aggressive.

As the guitarist-composer who is the creative brain behind the record scheme, Jared Slater scores high with insightful humor that gives depth to a continuously stoned facade and a sense that his guitar might be missing a few strings.

* "The Fifth of July," Vanguard Theatre, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. Ends Nov. 23. $12-$14. (714) 526-8007.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"The Fifth of July,"

Tony Masters: Kenneth Talley Jr.

Jeff Castle: Jed Jenkins

David Leeper: John Landis

Jill Cary Martin: Gwen Landis

Heather Smith: June Talley

Marisa Schuber: Shirley Talley

Judy Jones: Sally Friedman

Jared Slater: Weston Hurley

A Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production of Lanford Wilson's comedy-drama. Produced by Robert James Robertson. Directed by Amy Luskey-Barth. Lighting design: Edward Huber. Costume coordinator: Brenda Parks. Stage manager: Megan Beghtol.

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