There's plenty to admire in the Aurora's presentation of the Talley Trilogy, a three-play homage to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson.
Foremost is Artistic Director Tom Ross's three-tiered nod to a single artist's work in one season. It's a rare act for a theater company to mount all three plays when variety is an audience-pleasing essential. The move provides context and an opportunity to follow Wilson as he weaves three separate narratives with overlapping characters and themes of family and social conflict, love, honor, war, and loss.
Wilson was prolific, writing 17 full-length plays and over 30 one-acts before his death in 2011 at age 73. Credited with creating the off-off-Broadway scene in the 1960s, his work landed on Broadway, earning Tony nominations and the Pulitzer Prize for Talley's Folly, the second play in the cycle.
Director Joy Carlin's concise, intimate Talley's Folly, plays in the Aurora's 49-seat Harry's UpStage venue and staged readings of Talley and Son, a less-often presented work, began April 27. Ross's sensitive direction and the poetic lyricism of Wilson's language in Fifth of July — the play written first but chronologically last in the lineup — are the main stage production's anchors. The first two plays are set on the same day, July 4, 1944; the two-and-a-half-hour Fifth takes place 33 years later.
Kenneth Talley, Jr. (Craig Marker) is a Vietnam War veteran who lost both legs along with his 1960s idealism in the war. Determined to sever his connection to the past, to other people, and especially to the family's 19-room homestead in Lebanon, Mo., Kenneth secretly arranges to sell the house to two Berkeley buddies from his college days. Gwen (Nanci Zoppi), a pill-popping copper company heiress with a golden singing voice, and her wheeler-dealer husband, John (John Girot), intend to convert the house into a recording studio. Sidekick songwriter Weston Hurley (Harold Pierce) carries a guitar, a poor memory possibly impaired by too much dope, and an endless spool of “I read a book about …” interruptions.
Raffling off the family home becomes betrayal after it's revealed that Jed (Josh Schell), Kenneth's devoted partner and a botanist, seeks permanence by planting a garden that will take up to 20 years to reach maturity. Kenneth's sister, June (Jennifer LeBlanc), has plans for Kenneth to stay in Lebanon to be a schoolteacher and not run off to Greece, while their Aunt Sally (Elizabeth Benedict), still clutching a candy box filled with her husband's ashes one year after he died, signals that letting go of the past will require more than a title transfer on a mortgage.
Plans overlap plans — and not snugly — as will happen in families. Secondary stories have June's 13-year-old daughter, Shirley (Oceana Ortiz), parading through the action as a larger-than-life Betty Grable and disintegrating at the thought of marrying Weston and becoming “Shirley Hurley.” The town boils with anti-Semitic sentiment — although oddly, no one in 1977 seems to have trouble with a gay man teaching high school students — leaving an indignant Sally to protect the memory of her deceased Jewish husband. Chaos is amplified by love triangles and life's way of splitting allies into enemies when politics and money are a part of the equation. The revolutionary fervor of the '60s mildews into '70s selfishness, materialism, and other human pitfalls.
Unfortunately, despite a strong cast and a script that occasionally sings with word combinations one can imagine feel good rolling off an actor's tongue — or swings giddily with undercurrents of humor or sarcasm — the play's stodgy first act dulls the senses and demands too much patience. By the time Wilson has looped all the various characters and their connections into a tidy bundle for the second act's explosions, we may not care about the resulting collateral damage. As much as we might respect the playwright's bold-for-the-time portrayal of a same-sex couple without making the Fifth a “coming-out play,” or applaud Wilson's ability to empathize with characters of all kinds, the bitterness and rage needed to grab an audience and justify how hard we've worked to remain invested rises only sporadically.
The play's most lovely moment comes in a coda, with Zoppi singing a ballad accompanied by Pierce. And Benedict infuses her portrayal of a 64-year-old radical with genuine warmth. Perhaps the role is written to show a greater arc, but her Sally changes and holds our interest. Other characters, written and portrayed more as one-note players, lose power the longer they linger. While finding things to praise in Zoppi's exuberant Gwen, Le Blanc's assured June, Pierce's perfectly-pitched quirkiness as Weston, and the rest of the cast's technical skills, the overall effect is as numbing as the family is stifling.