MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Morning After: Seattle’s Theatre22 Takes Its First Bow

(left to right) Meg McLynn, Alex Garnett, Zach Sanders, Chris Shea, Tom Stewart, Megan Ahiers, Rachel Sedwick, and Mary Machala

(left to right) Meg McLynn, Alex Garnett, Zach Sanders, Chris Shea, Tom Stewart, Megan Ahiers, Rachel Sedwick, and Mary Machala

When he was ready to realize his dream of launching a new theater company in Seattle, director, actor, and teacher Corey D. McDaniel chose a play that centers around rich and complex ensemble acting for their first outing. Theatre22‘s declared mission to serve as “a meeting ground” emphasizes the power of artistic collaboration. And the company’s inaugural production of Fifth of July unquestionably puts its values to the test.

Lanford Wilson’s landmark play from 1978 is a richly textured meditation on the ties and tensions between a circle of highly individual characters coping with the emotional scars of disillusionment – and, in the case of Kenny Talley, a vet who lost his legs in Vietnam, the physical scars as well. Ken has taken temporary refuge in the now-rundown family homestead in rural Missouri which is his inheritance. Kenny’s lover Jed, a creative gardener, is painstakingly restoring the surrounding landscape, but the impulse toward stability Jed represents is countered by the events of a long Independence Day’s journey into night.

Chris Shea and Alex Garnett as Kenny and Jed

Chris Shea and Alex Garnett as Kenny and Jed

Among the holiday guests are Kenny’s sister June and her precocious teenage daughter, their Aunt Sally, and friends from their shared past as erstwhile radical students at Berkeley in the 1960s: the smooth-talking John Landis (who was sexually involved with brother and then sister) and his wealthy wife Gwen, whose big business trust fund didn’t prevent her from accessorizing trendy ’60s-style Marxism back in the day. Now, though, Gwen’s dreams have turned toward a career as a country singer, and her trusty guitarist Wes has accompanied her for the visit.

Borrowing a framework from Chekhov, Wilson establishes dramatic stakes that outwardly revolve around the proposed sale of the Talley home. John and Gwen hope to buy the farm to transform it into a commercial recording studio. But its metaphorical significance – the symbol of Ken’s unrealized potential and also of the past, of the collective memory whose meaning is up for grabs – intensifies the moral weight of the outcome. (Wilson, who died just two and a half years ago, went on to expand his drama of the Talleys into a trilogy, writing two more plays about the Talley family’s past, which take place in the 1940s.)

Fifth of July cast: Megan Ahiers, Tom Stewart, Chris Shea, and Meg McLynn; photo by Robert Falk

Fifth of July cast: Megan Ahiers, Tom Stewart, Chris Shea, and Meg McLynn; photo by Robert Falk

Director Julie Beckman is well attuned to the musical method of Wilson’s writing: like a tapestry of solo instrumentals emerging from the ensemble, different characters unexpectedly detach and come into the foreground to riff on a particular – not necessarily related – theme, only to gently recede while the focus turns elsewhere. A persistent challenge is making these transitions plausible and seamless: at times the production makes them feel too abrupt. There’s a lot of sensitive attention to detail in these monologues, and to their alluringly poetic blend of pathos and eccentric humor. The overall pacing, though, especially in the first act, has a tendency to slacken. As with Chekhov, finding the right tempo for Wilson is an extremely subtle undertaking.

Yet the connections and frustrations that are key to Fifth‘s momentum are vividly realized by the cast. Chris Shea, while tending toward a one-note approach to Kenny’s bitterly ironic tone, is genuinely moving in the final scene when – with beautiful symmetry – he is persuaded to stay by Gwen (a gloriously larger-than-life fuck-up in Meg McLynn’s portrayal). As his boyfriend Jed, Alex Garnett is the force that grounds Kenny, but he also underlines the significance of his rapport with Aunt Sally – and thus is the linchpin who holds this fragile family together. Megan Ahiers conveys sister June’s lingering insecurity; as her uber-curious daughter Shirley, Rachel Sedwick toggles between bratty tantrums and wise-beyond-her years remarks.

Aunt Shirley is meant to embody the contradictions that define the Talley family – or the braver exemplars of the clan – and the link to a past whose meaning has become painfully dubious. Mary Machala shows her as a dreamy eccentric, bruised in her own way and thus in league with her nephew Kenny. Tom Stewart emphasizes John’s sleazy swagger, but he comes off a tad too nice for the cutthroat competitor who has apparently shucked his Age of Aquarius idealism with no qualms. Zach Sanders has a few show-stealing moments as the space cadet Wes – including his famous monolog about the ill-fated Eskimo family.

The fine black box space of Fremont’s West of Lenin underscores the intimacy of this production and the details of Michael Mowery’s picture-frame unit set and Jordan Christianson’s spot-on costuming (complete with unironic bell-bottoms sported by John). Tim Moore’s sound focuses on the music – mostly a blast from the past – though I would’ve also welcomed some environmental sounds for a sense of place. Robert Falk’s lighting traces the first act’s woozy trailing off into memory as the national holiday fades into night, followed by the uneasy promise of the morning after.

It all makes for an impressive inaugural production. And Theatre22 has mapped out some ambitious plans for later in the season: in February comes a new musical titled The Hours of Life by Paul Lewis, based on Edgar Allen Poe, which will be directed by Corey McDaniel; and Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata is slated for this coming June, directed by Gerald B. Browning.

If you go: Fifth of July plays through October 26 at West of Lenin in Fremont. Tickets online

Corey McDaniel (producer) and Julie Beckman (director); photo by K. Lindsay

Corey McDaniel (producer) and Julie Beckman (director); photo by K. Lindsay

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