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.”
What could easily have become formulaic in another playwright’s hands is here graced by Wilson’s subtle writing. As much as any of his plays, and perhaps more than most, Fifth of July justifies the tendency to compare Wilson to Chekhov. Like that great Russian playwright, Wilson achieves his exposition via circling insinuations that come to resemble utterly natural discourse. The characters inspire both laughter and pathos, as their yearnings and their disappointments (i.e., their stories) are relayed via Chekhovian digressions.
If the current production makes the play seem even better than it was the first time around, it may have a lot to do with the performance. Although Swoosie Kurtz won the Tony Award in 1981 for her dazzling star turn as the kooky Gwen, in retrospect, it appears that she may have hijacked the stage from the other actors in order to gain it. Today, Parker Posey presents a Gwen who is less of a caricature and more credible. Under Jo Bonney’s meticulous direction, she also fits more comfortably into the fabric of the ensemble. Without meaning to slight anyone in the fine cast, honorable mentions are also deserved by Robert Sean Leonard for conveying the heartache beneath Ken’s cynicism and by Pamela Payton-Wright for her endearing Sally.
Wilson, too, evidently fell in love with Sally. He was compelled to write two prequels to the Talley saga: Talley’s Folly (which won a Pulitzer Prize) and A Tale Told, both occurring simultaneously, as it were, on July 4, 1944, at different sites on the Talleys’ Missouri estate.
August Wilson’s far more monumental and nearly completed cycle of ten plays–which document the African-American experience decade by decade during the twentieth century–began with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. (His ninth play in the cycle, Gem of the Ocean, will have its world premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theater in April.) Seeing Ma Rainey nearly twenty years later, one can’t help recognizing it for what it is: an early work by an unseasoned playwright. The current revival at Broadway’s Royale Theatre also underscores some problems common to Wilson’s plays: While each features incandescent monologues and brilliantly realized scenes, they also rely on old-fashioned melodramatics, and few transcend their author’s contrivances. (Two notable exceptions are Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson.) This Wilson is a playwright whose architecture and artifice are usually showing.
Nominally considered to be the mother of the blues, Ma Rainey would have been 41 in 1927, when the play that bears her name is set. The plot is built around a recording session in a Chicago studio, and the drama centers on whether to use a jazzy new arrangement of the eponymous song, rather than the “jug band” style Rainey prefers. David Gallo’s ultrarealistic setting places Rainey’s agent and the head of the studio in an enclosed sound booth above the stage, perfectly capturing the work’s central message about the oppression of blacks by whites.
As conceived by Wilson, Rainey is an imperious woman who exploits her success to wield what power she can over her handlers. “The white folks don’t care at all about me,” says Rainey about her cheapskate record producers. “All they want is my voice…. As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on. Ain’t got no use for me then.”
The shrewd Rainey also uses her authority to manipulate her band, and particularly the trumpet-playing Levee, who’s created the new musical arrangements she rejects. Though the play’s title might suggest otherwise, Levee emerges as its centrifugal force. We become acquainted with his evident volatility while the band is waiting for the delinquent Rainey to show up.
Levee views himself as a real artist, superior to the rest of the band. “If my daddy knowed I was gonna turn out like this he would’ve named me Gabriel.” Levee has also written some songs, and frequently refers to his dream of having his own band.
With both her stuttering nephew and her gorgeous young lesbian lover in tow, Rainey arrives unconscionably late for the recording session. And then, as if the circumstances weren’t already combustible enough, Levee overlooks his colleagues’ advice and comes on to Rainey’s lover.
As in most of his subsequent plays, Wilson overtly foreshadows the bloodshed to come. The violent climax of Ma Rainey ensues after Levee is fired by Ma and then thwarted by her producer–introducing what would become Wilson’s recurring theme of displaced black rage. In the food-chain world the playwright customarily portrays, blacks are always on the bottom rung, where, inevitably, they are compelled to prey on one another.
As with the first production of Ma Rainey, the best thing about this revival is Charles S. Dutton’s powerhouse portrayal of Levee, a part he originated in 1984. Whether ranting against a “white man’s God” or pacing the rehearsal room like a caged animal, Dutton is riveting. One also rushes to applaud the three gifted actors who play the other band members with a natural camaraderie: Carl Gordon, Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Stephen McKinley Henderson. But in comparison with the imposing fierceness of Theresa Merritt’s original Ma Rainey, Whoopi Goldberg doesn’t seem comfortable with the character’s towering ire: She delivers a small and awkward performance that reduces Rainey’s wise remarks to clichés. “White folks don’t understand about the blues,” says Rainey. “They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”