How many plays have been written as family sagas centering around who gets the house! It all goes back to the Greeks, e.g. Aeschylus’ Oresteia. The question is right up there with who gets the girl or guy.
The house in Fifth of July is “a prosperous southern Missouri farmhouse built around 1860” but the play, written in 1978, is set in the 1970’s and takes up the aftermath of the ’60’s and the Vietnam War. Ken Talley, Jr., a gay Vietnam veteran who lost is lower legs in the war currently owns the house through family inheritance. Living in it with him is his lover, Jed, a youthful, handsome guy who loves to plant things, as well as Ken’s sister June, a single mother, with her daughter Shirley, who represents an aftermath of the period in her own right: it turns out she’s the daughter of John Landis, who is visiting with his wife Gwen. They’re all old buddies from their politically engaged, free-loving, — and idealized — Berkeley days in the ’60’s.
Ken, an English teacher, can’t face the coming semester with students who, he’s sure, will be horrified and disgusted by his maimed body and is thinking of fleeing somewhere to get away from it all — like Greece. The Landis’s are here to buy the house to turn it into a music studio from which Gwen, who’s inherited a large copper conglomerate, can launch her career as a country music singer — what better place to launch a country music career than from a Missouri farmhouse with roots?
The war, acting through Ken’s bitterness, and the Landis’ big money, together threaten the Talley family’s long hold on the house. June, Shirley and Jed, for whom it’s home, would be forced out, the house abandoned to a commercial venture. The day is saved by Sally Friedman, ne Talley, a central figure in the earlier Talley plays, in a bidding war with the Landis’s that reminded me of the ending of Ostrovsky’s The Forest, seen this past season at Classic Stage.
It’s a story with the potential to engage one through its human subjects and significant social resonance but these are not clearly expressed in this production. It takes a long time to catch on to who’s who and what’s happening here — the first act is mainly confusing. And the profound examination of the aftermaths of the Vietnam War and the 1960’s is almost lost in the piecemeal way the story is told. The themes, some of which I’ve mentioned, are submerged. The actors often speak too quickly to be fully understood — What did he say? Why did she do that? The set is generic “older American house” but lacks the specifics of lives lived in it and mellow sense of time to help bring the play alive, and includes elements that are never used in the course of the production.
Fifth of July is the third in Lanford Wilson’s trilogy that includes Talley’s Folly and Talley & Son, which were all first performed in NYC at Circle Repertory Theater in the 1970’s and directed famously by Marshall W. Mason — but the plays all stand on their own and don’t have to be seen in order, so that’s not the reason this one doesn’t fulfill its promise.
Fifth of July plays at Bay Street in Sag Harbor through August 1.