BWW Review: Desert Rose Presents a Fine Production of FIFTH OF JULY.
Each year, the Desert Rose Playhouse puts on a "gay heritage production" - a play with historic importance in LGBTQIA theatre. This year's presentation is Lanford Wilson's FIFTH OF JULY, which the company pulls off admirably, aside from a few pacing problems.
One of the things that makes FIFTH OF JULY, which opened in 1980 and takes place in the mid-1970's, so important is that it is part of a trilogy aimed at general audiences, and happens to include two gay characters. These characters are the only ones in the show who are "normal," well-adjusted people - the others are overwrought, dysfunctional individuals trying desperately to find some happiness. Not that everything is coming up roses for the two gay protagonists - Ken Talley (Brent Anderson), has lost his legs in Vietnam, and is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life, with the help of his partner, Jed Jenkins (Jason Hull).
Modern audiences looking back on the almost 40-year-old script can view it in one of two opposite ways: The first is the view that playwright Wilson plays down the relationship between Ken and Jed to the point that an audience member can come away without fully realizing that the two men are a gay couple living openly in a small Missouri town. The second is that the other characters find the relationship so unremarkable that the playwright has no need to emphasize it. The former interpretation shows how far society has come in the intervening years, and the latter shows the importance of presenting same sex relationships as ordinary, at a time that straight people still considered them disturbing - during the time that FIFTH OF JULY takes place, a parent might accept his or her child's same-sex orientation, but would never react to it with a shrug, as a modern parent would hopefully do.
The script is extremely talky, and the hour and a quarter first act reveals a great deal of back story involving the earlier two plays in the trilogy. Unfortunately, the talkiness bogs the dialogue down; in my view, the repartee ought to snap back and forth. In Desert Rose's production, the pacing during much of the first act at the performance I saw was too slow. However, during the whole second act and the first act scenes where the characters argue, director Jim Strait speeds up the pacing. In those segments, the dialogue crackles with tension; most of these characters resent each other, and can barely keep the venom from bubbling over.
The ensemble, made up of both Desert Rose veterans and newcomers, blends together perfectly, without a weak link. Some of the actors deserve a special shout-out: Melanie Blue is becoming the company's "go-to" casting choice for feisty, slightly obnoxious females. When her character (Gwen Landis) poked other characters with her index finger, I felt like poking her back. Palm Desert High School senior Monique Burke plans to study film and television in college. She brings the right mixture of pathos and optimism to teenager Shirley Talley, born to an unwed mother and raised by her great-aunt and uncle, with one foot in conventional society and one in the late 1960's counter-culture. Ann Van Haney (overgrown flower child June Talley), in her Desert Rose debut, manages to create sympathy for a character that I wanted to dislike because of the trouble she brought on her daughter through her irresponsible lifestyle. The multi-talented Jason Hull plays Jed Jenkins, who has the difficult task of trying to blend into the background among all the crazies. Mr. Hull effectively portrays a loyal, decent person who is on the brink of disaster thanks to being a nice guy. John Landis, played by Michael Pacas, seems like he's ordinary, until he reveals in bits and pieces that he is manipulative and dishonest.
Robbie Wayne's sets (a room in a country house and the patio) are warm and inviting, belying the drama that is taking place within. His costume designs capture the 1970's; I loved the oversized eyeglasses that I remember from my youth. Phil Murphy's lighting successfully evokes the on-stage mood.
Other than my complaint about the first act's pacing - a problem that I suspect was unique to that performance - this is a fine production of FIFTH OF JULY, which I recommend for all audiences.
The other members of the cast and crew are Alden West (Sally Talley); James Owens (Weston Hurley); Steve Fisher (resident stage manager); Paul Taylor (producer); Tim Cagney and Michael Pacas (executive producers); Ed Monie (producing partner); and Desert Daily Guide (media sponsor).
FIFTH OF JULY will run through February 4, 2018. Tickets can be ordered online at www.desertroseplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 760-202-3000. There is no service charge for Internet or phone orders. Performances are at 8 PM Friday and Saturday evenings and at 2 PM Sundays. Tickets are $37 for evening performances and $34 for matinees. Prices include a $2 per ticket facility fee, which will go towards refurbishing the theater, including purchasing new seats.
The Desert Rose Playhouse is located just north of Frank Sinatra Boulevard, near the Emperor Buffet, at 69-620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage, CA 92270. The Box Office opens at 4 p.m. before evening performances and at noon on Sundays.
Desert Rose supports the local community, such as by having donated $84,000 worth of tickets to the Desert AIDS project. As a not-for-profit public benefit corporation, Desert Rose is required to raise a third of its annual budget from public support, as opposed to ticket sales. Donations are very welcome. Please mail checks to Desert Rose Productions, Inc., P.O. Box 2256, Cathedral City, CA 92235. To submit donations through Paypal, click the link located on the Desert Rose Web site at www.desertroseplayhouse.org/Pages/Sponsorship.aspx.
The rest of Desert Rose's 2017-18 season consists of:BEDROOMS AND BOYFRIENDS is a special presentation with Compulsion Dance and Theatre for three performances on February 9-11, 2018. BEDROOMS AND BOYFRIENDS is a series of four short plays by Samantha Ginn, Jonathan Hammond, Michael Mizerany and Ryan Roach. All four plays are staged on the same bedroom set and explore themes of love, lust, sex and romance. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM and Sunday at 2 PM, through February 11, 2018.
SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, by Tennessee Williams, March 9 - April 1, 2018
The classic horror story from Tennessee Williams of Sebastian Venable's life and death and his mother Violet's diabolical plan to stifle the truth about Sebastian by cutting the memories out of her niece Catherine's brain.
DARE, by Allan Baker, April 20 - May 13, 2018
The world premiere of an award-winning play by a fresh, literate and engaging Texas playwright, DARE is the story of an elderly gay man whose desire to die on his own terms sparks an impassioned challenge from his younger gay doctor. As funny as it is intimate, DARE is a touching reminder that the lessons of history must be part of any struggle for a better and more accepting world.