BWW Review: Burbage Theatre Company's Excellent HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE

BWW Review: Burbage Theatre Company's Excellent HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE

HAPPY BIRTHDAY WANDA JUNE is the only full length play by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., based on his novel of the same name. Like many Vonnegut works, it captures beautifully the absurdity of life, death and senseless violence all while making you laugh so hard you worry you'll hurt yourself. Burbage Theatre Company has taken this under-utilized gem and shined it up perfectly. Though the play takes place in 1970, it's shocking to note how well it holds up, especially when acted and directed so well.

The action of the play revolves around the life and loves of Penelope Ryan, played by Allison Crews, a woman who may or may not be a widow. He husband Harold Ryan, Andrew Stigler, has been missing for eight years, during which time Penelope has been raising their young son alone. Just as Penelope is getting ready to re-marry, Harold reappears and demands to be let back into the home and the marital bed. Indeed, it seems a bit like he never left as a terrifying portrait of him dominates the living room set, and both his son and wife seem to exist in a museum dedicated to his memory. Harold, presumed dead, was off living in the jungle with Looseleaf Harper, played by Jim Sullivan, an aviator who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, and the two of them were hunting for diamonds and killing for sport.

There is a lot going on in this play, despite the opening line which is: "This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing, and those who don't." Like everything Vonngeut wrote, that which may appear simple at the outset, is stuffed full of complexity and thought-provoking ideas served on a bed of mirth. Though the play is excellent, it could easily fall apart in the wrong hands, and that is why this production is so satisfying.

The pacing and lighting work exceptionally well here. There is barely a moment to think and catch your breath before being vaulted into the next scene, but it never feels overwhelming, it never feels like anything less than a thrill ride with fifty giant hills and drops. It is absurdity at its best, and the cast handle every moment beautifully.

Indeed, there are no weak links in the cast. Allison Crews is charming as Penelope Ryan, but also seems very much like a woman ahead of her time in that in a chaotic situation, she makes certain to take control of her own destiny. Her two love interests, Dr. Norbert Woodly (Dillon Medina) and Herb Shuttle (Justin Paige) are both convincingly besotted with her. Even the younger cast members--Nicolas Griffin as Penelope's son Paul Ryan; and Emeline Easton as the titular Wanda June hold their own against their grown up peers.

The show is thoroughly stolen at the appearance of Harold Ryan, whom Andrew Sigler plays with a terrifying intensity. There are moments when he goes into an aggro-caveman mode and his face gets alarmingly red making his blue eyes shine like lasers piercing the audience. His character is at once physically intimidating, but also a clownish relic of the past, and he manages this juxtaposition with ease.

This is a play that is hard to summarize, and seeing this production at Burbage is hard to describe--it's just an excellent night of theatre. It's strange that this show isn't produced more since the themes and jokes are timeless, but since this is a rare opportunity, one should make every effort to catch it before it's gone.

Andrew Stigler as Harold Ryan and Jim Sullivan as Looseleaf Harper Photo Credit Maggie Hall

Happy Birthday Wanda June runs through February 5 at Aurora Providence, 276 Westminster Street, Providence RI. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit or contact for reservations and more info.

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