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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Written and set in 1970, but flashing back to the late 1950s when the events Alan is trying to pin down for us took place, the play is -autobiographical. Make that semi-autobiographical, for as Alan ruefully admits the facts about the time spent with his father's second family vary from recollection to recollection. The whole point of his trying to make sense of it all is not really to get the facts 100% accurate. Instead, it's all about his coming to grips with his memories of the difficult relationship he had with his father, and just how and when he became mature enough to let go of his anger so that their differences no longer mattered.
Lemon Sky is not in the top tier of Lanford Wilson's ouevre, like the Pulitzer Prize winning Talley's Folly, and it suffers from the playwright's tendency to punctuate his wonderful lyrical realism with occasionally slow and boring moments. It is nevertheless a play that's good enough to warrant giving each generation of theater goers a chance to see it, especially since the leading roles always attract top of the line actors. The premiere production in 1970 featured Christopher Walken and Charles Durning as the father and son. An excellent Second Stage revival in 1985 starred Jeff Daniels as Alan and Wayne Tippit as the macho working class father. A made for television adaptation starred Kevin Bacon, with Bacon's wife Keira Sedgwick as one of the sexy foster daughters and Tom Atkins as the father.
Under Jonathan Silverstein's direction, the Keen Company's revival currently on Theater Row, brings fresh life to this familiar yet hard to tell father and son story. Silverstein subtly and smoothly navigates the transitions between the narrator as a man in his 20s in 1970 and during his time in California during the late 1950s. With a powerful assist from lighting designer Josh Bradford, Silverstein most effectively has the action shift between the interior and exterior of the cookie cutter suburban house in which Doug and his family live (bravo for set designer Bill Clarke).
Most impressively, the director sails easily through the various emotional shifts, nicely balancing humor and heartbreak, and eliciting performances from the cast that reveal the feelings beneath the surface. While Nobbs is very much the star around whom everything pivots, Kevin Kliner is excellent as Doug, the father who is the play's nominal villain. Also impressive is Kellie Overbey as Ronnie, the wife who as first observed by Alan is like "Blondie in the movies" but who ends up a heroic compromiser who keeps her dysfunctional family functioning and ultimately is the character who most affects Alan's passage from angry youth to maturity.
Carol and Penny (Alyssa May Gold and Amie Tedesco are also quite good as the two foster daughters who are part of Alan's new family because Doug and Ronnie need the money the State pays for their room and board. Gold's Lolita-like Carol and Tedesco needy, fantasy inclined Penny fit right in with this decidedly less than perfect family. Logan Riley Bruner and Zachary Mackiewicz display admirable stage presence as Alan and Ronnie's young sons.
Wilson's 1950s landscape is an interesting picture of a by-gone era — a time when California was a land awash in new subdivisions to accommodate families moving there to bask in the sunshine of its booming postwar economy and still blind to the soon-to-come social changes. Today, Doug's camera club would be be shooting digital pictures. And his rah-rah optimism would be dampened by the current economy.
The Signature Theater has already and wisely devoted a season to Lanford Wilson, but that season didn't include Lemon Sky, so the Keen Company's revival is a welcome postscript. Like all Wilson's work this play demonstrates Wilson's distinctively realistic lyricism as well as his compassion for his characters. Now, if only the Keen Company or someone, will bring back his even earlier Balm in Gilead.
Productions of Lanford Wilson's Plays reviewed at Curtainup:
The Fifth of July- Williamstown Theater Festival
Fifth of July- Signature Wilson Season
Book of Days - Signature Wilson Season
Hot L Baltimore- Williamstown Theatre Festival
Rain Dance -Signature Wilson Season
Serenading Louie -London Talley's Folly--New Jersey
Talley's Folley- Berkshire Theater Festival (Berkshires)
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show
Slings & Arrows-the complete set
You don't have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to love all 21 episodes of this hilarious and moving Canadian TV series about a fictional Shakespeare Company