The revival of a highly regarded play can either enhance or diminish its reputation. Consider the current productions of two very different works–by playwrights who share a surname–a couple of decades after their premieres. If Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July appears today to be a better play than memory allows, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has far less of an impact than it originally did. Such reassessments are surprising in each case: Having launched August Wilson’s career, Ma Rainey had grown in stature, along with its playwright’s reputation. Fifth of July, on the other hand, focused on 1960s radicals who reunite a decade later, and it seemed permanently wedded to the post-Watergate period of its debut.
After opening in 1978 at the Circle Rep Theater, Fifth of July transferred to Broadway two years later, with most of its cast intact. Its present run has just been extended at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre, which has devoted its current season to Lanford Wilson, including an eye-opening revival of his Burn This last fall.
Lanford Wilson has always had a rare knack for getting inside his character’s skin and revealing his or her humanity naturally. In Sympathetic Magic (1997)–arguably his most ambitious, and certainly his most underrated, play–Wilson investigated cosmic concerns by assembling a couple of astronomers and an anthropologist with a sculptor and a priest, providing each with an individual voice.
Set in a sprawling Missouri farmhouse, Fifth of July brings together several generations of the Talley family, with a couple of visiting friends, on Independence Day, 1977. The house is presently occupied by Ken Talley, a Vietnam vet who lost his spirit along with his legs. In addition to Jed, his devoted lover, Ken’s sister June is on hand with her precocious adolescent daughter, Shirley. The most senior Talley is their dotty Aunt Sally, who, when she isn’t looking for her late husband’s ashes, imparts sage wisdom.
Wilson’s introduction of Gwen and John, a flamboyant couple visiting from Los Angeles, helps evoke, at times, a farce by Kaufman and Hart. A wealthy 33-year-old woman who inherited a copper mine, Gwen is attempting to become a rock star, and she travels with Weston, a perpetually stoned yet erudite composer. While nurturing her musical aspirations, Gwen’s husband John also looks after her business affairs.
Though we quickly glean that John is actually the father of June’s adolescent daughter, it takes somewhat longer to realize that Ken, June, Gwen and John all lived together a decade earlier, when they were students at Berkeley. It takes even longer still to understand that they had overlapping affairs with each other. The specific alignments are never completely spelled out, but they may have included some homosexual as well as incestuous couplings among the four players: It was the 1960s, after all.
By taking the nation’s pulse in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Wilson was trying to gauge what had happened to the idealism of the 1960s as well as to the once-ubiquitous feeling that our world was being permanently altered for the better. As Gwen looks back on their heady days of civil protest, she intimates that she was less than a committed rabble-rouser. When John refutes her flippant remarks by reminding Gwen that she “helped firebomb” her own company, she replies, “I was stoned. Who knew what we were doing? We were on TV, we were on the cover of Time magazine. It was a blast.”
In sharp contrast with Gwen’s having been something of a tag-along, June really believed in her former convictions. As she proudly tells her daughter, “You have no idea of the country we almost made for you. The fact that I think it’s all a crock now does not take away from what we almost achieved.”