Second Fifth

Last week Dave and I went back for a second look at the Aurora Theater’s production of Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July, which we’d seen at a late preview and enjoyed. Wow. The performances have really deepened a lot, and the whole production is really engrossing. As Ken Talley, Jr., Craig Marker now has a stronger and more palpable sense of anger and frustration bubbling under the surface — he hadn’t really found it yet in the preview we saw — and it makes the story cohere better; Ken hides his despair under a surface of wry quips and indifference, but the more we can sense in the first act that this is a mask he uses to avoid dealing with painful but important issues, the more powerful the second act is when the painful issues start breaking out to the surface.

The whole ensemble is very sharp. Elizabeth Benedict, playing Ken’s Aunt Sally, whose performance I thought was one of the best things about the preview performance, is if anything even stronger. And the rest of the cast is up there with her now.

I was surprised at how much more I liked the play seeing it a second time after just a few weeks. I knew the play already when we saw the preview, but I hadn’t read it in many years; this time, seeing the first act again but with the second act clear in my memory from just a few weeks ago, I was startled to realize that I hadn’t ever noticed before how nicely written the first act is. It’s kind of amazing how much we learn about the characters and their situations and relationships in the course of what feels like a very loosely organized first act. A group of friends and family have come together to scatter the ashes of Uncle Matt, but Aunt Sally can’t decide if she’s really ready to scatter them. People dither about getting dressed, they change their minds about whether to go, they gossip about each other and rehash old issues (that they claim are all behind them, but of course they’re not), and by the end of the first act we know enough to care about these people and wonder how they are ever going to get past their old griefs and make new starts. It’s lovely playwriting.

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