Argyle Gargoyle Productions

at Blue Rider Theatre

Like a counterculture Chekhov, Lanford Wilson in Fifth of July casts a compassionate but darkly comic eye on the frustrated hopes and stalled aspirations of an extended family drifting in 1970s America. And as with Chekhov, the farther away we are from the time and place Wilson wrote about, the more we can learn from it. Rooted in a particular moment and a particular life-style, Fifth of July’s slightly decayed drug-culture dropouts seem at once as distant and as universal as the fading country gentry of The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya.

Still, Chekhov is unquestionably the finer and more durable playwright, and Wilson’s emulation of the Russian writer’s quirky mixture of pathos and humor can seem a little obvious unless it’s played by a fine company. Similarly, the collection of eccentric yet easily labeled personalities Wilson has assembled for this portrait of Carter-era “national malaise” can come across as cliched without multidimensional individual performances. Such is the case with Kelly Loudon’s staging of the work for Argyle Gargoyle Productions.

The setting is a down-at-heel family farm in Lebanon, Missouri. There Ken Talley, a bitter Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in the war, lives with his sister June, a disillusioned former bomb-throwing radical; June’s illegitimate 13-year-old daughter Shirley, at once a legacy of June’s careless sex life and a symbol of the spirit of youthful idealism her elders have lost; Ken’s lover Jed, a back-to-the-land longhair apparently modeled on Allen Ginsberg’s boyfriend Peter Orlovsky; and Ken and June’s aunt Sally, a slightly batty widow who can’t bring herself to dispose of the ashes of her husband Matt. (Matt’s World War II-era courtship of Sally was the topic of Wilson’s later Talley’s Folly.) Ken and June’s friends from college (the University of California at Berkeley, that onetime all-purpose symbol of loose living and leftie politics), Gwen and John Landis, are visiting the Talleys. Gwen, a copper heiress with a mouth and attitude that make Janis Joplin look demure, wants to be a rock singer; hubby John, who in younger days was sexually involved with both June and Ken, is an incipient yuppie wheeler-dealer who promotes Gwen’s career even though he doesn’t believe in her talent. (Eerily, John–the play’s destructive outsider, who wants to buy the Talley farm and turn it into a recording studio–now seems the most contemporary character of the bunch.) For extra measure there’s Weston Hurley, Gwen’s perpetually stoned-out, wise but childlike guitarist.

Through the interactions of these characters, Wilson spins variations on a series of themes and issues. Some are specific to their time–remember the Bermuda Triangle? Some are still with us, though their implications have been altered by subsequent events and understanding–the legacy of the 60s antiwar movement (suggested by the play’s title, with its after-the-revolution implications), the war that prompted it (premiered in 1978, this was one of the first plays to explore the situation of Vietnam veterans from a nonpolemical viewpoint), the pluses and minuses of sexual experimentation and perception-altering drug experiences. Some are universal–the particular tensions that can both wound and bind a family, nostalgia for the past, the sense of failure felt by a person looking back on an idealistic youth, the mythic conception of heroism and the human frailties that lead people to construct such myths (a more widely accessible theme now, given the general public’s broader familiarity with the ideas of Joseph Campbell, who was something of a cult figure when this play was written).

Laid out this way, Fifth of July might sound like a schematic variation on The Big Chill–though Fifth of July came about five years earlier than that movie (one of the film’s stars, William Hurt, played Ken Talley in the off-Broadway premiere of Wilson’s play). But Wilson’s special brand of humor and poetry makes his plays stand out from anything else that precedes or follows them.

Unfortunately, Argyle Gargoyle’s production fails to generate more than a handful of laughs, and the called-for rush of cathartic emotion in the play’s more dramatic second act is utterly lacking. The actors almost never connect with the complex and contradictory feelings of their characters. The only really believable performance comes from David Boughn as John Landis; this is surely due in part to his better-developed acting skills, but it also seems to reflect the rest of the company’s limited understanding of the other, earthier characters. Even the music used to set the scene is wrong: onetime freaks like the Talleys wouldn’t be listening to studio bands like Boston and the Bee Gees, for heaven’s sake! Aside from their limited dramatic skills and understanding of the era, the cast (except for Cathy Schenkelberg and Boughn as the Landises) fall short of basic professional standards of vocal and physical stage presence. Even in the fairly small Blue Rider space, much of the dialogue is hard to hear. (In particular, Steve Key as Jed gives Dustin Hoffman’s Dick Tracy character Mumbles a run for his mushmouth money.)

The problem of projection is exacerbated by director Loudon’s inept use of stage space. The uncredited set, which seeks to depict the living room and front porch of a sprawling farmhouse (but entirely misses the necessary atmosphere of a warm summer evening in the country), requires most of the action to be played upstage, which undermines the actors’ already limited capabilities for the subtleties needed to turn Wilson’s characters from types into full-blooded people. Based on Chicago’s southeast side (most of its shows are produced at Richard J. Daley College), Argyle Gargoyle promotes itself as a professional company; but its presentation of Fifth of July at Blue Rider, a well-known space for serious theater, sets up expectations that this community-level production doesn’t begin to match.