References to flowers, herbs and hedges crop up often in the course of the funky, free-form conversations that make up Lanford Wilson’s “Fifth of July,” and the horticultural arcana are an apt leitmotif: The play itself is like an endearingly overgrown garden, full of rare and exotic species, with dialogue that runs riotously off the beaten path and opens out into surprising vistas. The Signature Theater Co. production, the latest — and strongest — in the company’s seasonlong celebration of Wilson’s work, has an ideal gardener in director Jo Bonney, who tends it with loving care and a keen eye for both the play’s screwball comedy and its compassionate humanity. She is aided in her task by a thrillingly good ensemble without a single weak link.
Written first, “Fifth of July” is chronologically the last in Wilson’s trilogy of major plays about Missouri’s Talley family. The first act takes place on the evening of Independence Day in 1977, the second the morning after.
The timing — and title — are suggestively symbolic: They hint at the play’s understated ambitions as an exploration of the collective emotional hangover that followed the ebullient hopefulness of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Through the dislocated lives of its characters, Wilson is examining the state of the American psyche in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. But there is nothing polemical about the writing — Wilson simply weaves these themes naturally into the nubby fabric of the writing.
It’s all the more effective for that subtlety, and for the loose nature of its dramatic construction. Wilson, who began writing plays in the 1960s, when theatrical traditions were being decimated along with many another cultural strictures, allows the play to take its own organic shape.
He imposes no confining structure on it, allowing his characters to talk their way into all sorts of odd corners (that much-discussed folk tale about a flatulent Eskimo, for example) before the play arrives, almost by accident, at an utterly natural, and gently moving, emotional climax.
Indeed, the man who appears to be the central character, Kenneth Talley Jr. (Robert Sean Leonard), the Vietnam war vet who is at a crossroads when the play begins, fades into the background for long stretches. Ken lost both legs in the war and is having second thoughts about taking up the teaching career he’d abandoned.
The grounding influence of his boyfriend Jed (Michael Gladis), the green thumb of the house, can’t keep Ken’s more morbid tendencies — expressed in an endless series of gently bitter sarcasms — from flowering. But the circus that surrounds Ken on Richard Hoover’s agreeably cozy country-house set keeps everyone distracted from his quiet despair.
In one ring are the antics of Ken’s old friends Gwen (Parker Posey), a drug-addled heiress to a copper fortune with hopes of being a pop star, and her husband, John (David Harbour), who is encouraging her aspirations — they have descended upon Lebanon, Mo., with the vague idea of building a recording studio — while trying to keep firm control of her business interests.
In another is Ken’s Aunt Sally (Pamela Payton-Wright). She half-heartedly tends to her dried flowers (“How can people ever organize a hobby? It’s just exhausting”) while preparing for the day’s big event, the casting of her late husband’s ashes into the local river. (She keeps misplacing the candy box they’re housed in, however.)
Aunt Sally’s distracted musings make for a subtle string accompaniment to the one-woman brass band that is young Shirley Talley (Sarah Lord), a self-consciously precocious 14-year-old with a flair for making grandiose statements of her own worth.
Wilson’s characters are drawn in bold strokes, and the actors embrace their idiosyncrasies with obvious delight. Lord, an 18-year-old new to the New York stage, is delightful in both her gawkiness and her grandiosity as the self-dramatizing Shirley, whose head is still chockfull of the dreamy illusions her seniors have had to forsake.
In a deeply felt, deceptively casual performance, Payton-Wright strikes all sorts of memorably unexpected notes as Aunt Sally, who talks blithely of UFO sightings in one scene and casually discusses the anti-Semitism that tainted her happy marriage in another.
Ebon-Moss Bachrach, as the guitar-playing Wes, whose hazy grasp of folk tales incites that long and unlikely discussion of heroism as it relates to flatulence and the preservation of caribou meat, is aptly dreamy and earnest, Gladis his natural foil as the down-to-earth Jed.
But the core of the play’s understated emotional tension relates to the knot of interrelationships among Gwen, John, Ken and his sister June (Jessalyn Gilsig). They shared a past of student activism and sexual experimentation at Berkeley in the heady years of the late ’60s, but the tangled affections that drew them together eventually forced them apart — with tragic consequences for Ken, who, in one of the play’s most haunting moments, admits he has “never known why” he went to Vietnam shortly after their menage-a-quatre imploded.
Buried resentments and long-dormant desires begin to resurface when they all share the same roof, and emotional firecrackers go off as these longtime friends find themselves suddenly forced to reckon with the painful legacies of their mutual past.
Posey has the most flamboyant role, playing the heiress with more money than functioning brain cells, and she dives into it with rollicking abandon, flouncing around with slightly inebriated awkwardness in Ann Hould-Ward’s perfectly placed costumes (where did she find the Gunny Sax dress?).
Posey’s husky, deadpan voice brings an extra fillip of blithe humor to Gwen’s non sequiturs and hilarious reminiscences of the ’60s. (On hitchhiking to protest marches: “I couldn’t cut it. The first car that passed me up, I was destroyed. I used to fly ahead and meet them. Also, I couldn’t march, ’cause I’ve never had a pair of shoes that were really comfortable.”)
But Gilsig and Harbour give equally perceptive, if less overtly theatrical, perfs as the more introverted June and the seemingly easygoing but subtly ruthless John. And the inward despair of Ken is captured with terrific, off-handed simplicity by the ever-impressive Leonard.
Marinated as it is in the sights and sounds of the era it depicts, “Fifth of July” never feels dated; disillusionment is not, after all, an experience exclusive to a particular era.
But the play also has unsettling resonance this year. The lives of its central characters have been fractured, mildly or profoundly, by the disruption of the Vietnam war. As we watch it now, the country is preparing to embark on another major international entanglement that could have unforeseen, devastating consequences on American lives. It’s not just his ideals, after all, that Ken Talley lost in the war.