The ambition of the young company members of Princeton Summer Theater makes itself known this year in the choices of the company’s season; often, a summer stock troupe picks a collection of frothy, light fare to glide its way through the summer months. These young performers, however, chose a different path, with four productions that highlight ambitious and bold storytelling in an effort to provide Princeton audiences with more substantial offerings this summer. And, while the season occasionally had a moment that was more adventurous than successful, one has to applaud their tenacity and idealistic focus.
Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July” closes out the season, and it’s an interesting and brave choice that also doubles as a bit of meta-commentary on the nature of this summer and of the precipice of 20-somethings in modern America. Set in Lebanon, MO, on fourth of July weekend in 1977, the play centers around a quartet of dreamers in their early 30s as they reflect back on the promises made to one another in the midst of the Love Generation and the horrors of Vietnam. It’s hard not to draw parallels to the current national climate, with the country in another war of amorphous moral underpinnings and a tide of idealistic energy tampered by the threshold of disillusionment.
It’s worth getting out of the way right up front—all of the actors in “Fifth of July” are in their early twenties, with the majority of them playing roles in their 30s (one is 65, another in her early teens). But it’s one of those evenings of theater where the suspension of disbelief of age-appropriate casting goes a long way; once this suspension is in place, the warmth and wholly-drawn world created by Kip Williams’ astute direction is welcoming and irresistible. These eight young actors wield Lanford Wilson’s words with skill and aplomb, and the result is a completely engrossing experience.
At its heart, “Fifth of July” is a play about the battle between love and cynicism. The play seems to radiate with that implacable late-summer glow born from eight performers who relish in more than just the meatiness of their well-written roles — they genuinely seem to care for and like one another. It’s like you’re a fly on the wall, taking in a family’s comfortable interactions on a late summer afternoon.
A group of burnt-out, grown-up former radicals has gathered at the sprawling, worn-down estate of Sally Talley (a generation older than her appearance in Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly,” performed at McCarter two seasons ago), still overcoming the loss of her husband in the previous year. There’s brother and sister Ken (Tyler Weaks) and June (Veronica Severd), and their childhood friend, John (Andy Linz), and his wife, Gwen (Dominique Salerno). The bonds of friendship among these four are palpable; you really get the feeling that they have known one another forever. And each is spectacularly well-drawn. Gwen, a copper heiress, is intent on making it, at 33, as a rock musician. She’s all about the grand gestures, coupled with a mild case of histrionic personality disorder — it’s a plum role that as fun to watch as it looks to play, and Salerno has a ball. Her husband, John, is perhaps the most staunchly adult of the foursome — transformed into the rigid caretaker of both his wife’s assets and, indeed, his wife herself, protecting her from the more destructive aspects of her lingering free-spirit ways.
June’s radicalism has mellowed into a wistful nostalgia for days gone by, with her buoyant teenage daughter, Shirley (Heather May), as an omnipresent reminder and living echo of her own misspent youth. And then there’s Kenneth, the emotional core of the play. Acerbic and likable, Kenneth was the popular focal point of the quartet who neglected to dodge the draft, and lost his legs in the war. With the soul of a poet and a damaged, pointed wit, Kenneth’s love for his hometown coupled with an abject fear of appearing broken create a magnetic character. Tyler Weaks is a find — his portrayal is gentle, nuanced, and completely believable. His relationship with his partner, Jed (Daniel Rattner), has the marks of pain and slow-built love all around it. It creates that rare magic where you forget you’re watching a play, but eavesdropping on the quietly defining moments of someone else’s life.
“Fifth of July” is a quiet, lovely play about huge issues that evokes feelings of both comfort and nostalgia; it’s easy to see yourselves in these people, and to remember a time in our lives when we wanted more than we had — and to go further still and provoke ourselves to fight for the things we need and love in each other. It transforms a quiet summer night into an evening with new friends we’ve known all our lives, and is well worth your time.
“Fifth of July,” Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater. Through Sunday, August 15, 2 p.m. Drama by Lanford Wilson focusing on family and friends of a Vietnam veteran evolves into battles for property, custody, and survival. $16. 609-258-7062 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.