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Fifth of July: Broadway Theatre Archive

Here's one of the cool things about the Broadway Theatre Archive series: it gives us opportunities to watch actors we know from movies or TV really work for a living. And more often than not we watch those actors play against type through characters offering greater range and diversity than their familiar screen personas. Case in point: Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July. By turns comic and poignant, this 1982 production stars Richard Thomas (The Waltons, Wonder Boys), 27-year-old Jeff Daniels (Purple Rose of Cairo), and Swoosie Kurtz (an Emmy winner who's all over the map). Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon, all of 16, also appears in a major role.

Thomas plays Ken Talley, a wry, embittered schoolteacher with two artificial legs brought home from Vietnam. Ken lives with Jed Jenkins (Daniels) — a gardener, steady companion, and Ken's lover. The time is early evening, Independence Day 1977, and then the following morning. The place is the homespun hamlet of Lebanon, Missouri. At the sprawling Talley family farmhouse, Ken hosts a reunion of his old UC-Berkeley college friends, former student activists who during the Vietnam years had agitated for what they dreamed would be an improved world. Arriving for the festivities are Ken's childhood friend, wheeler-dealer John Landis (Jonathan Hogan), and John's wife Gwen (Kurtz), a flighty country singer. Also here are Ken's caustic sister June (Joyce Reehling), June's oh-so-teenage daughter Shirley (Nixon), musician/burnout Wes Hurley (Danton Stone), and grounded Aunt Sally (Helen Stenborg), who's bearing her husband's ashes in a candy box.

As they reminisce over pot, cocaine, and sex, they reopen old wounds and lost ideals, and expose unrealized hopes of their college days and the unhealed trauma of the Vietnam War. Figuratively, it's the day after the fireworks, and what's left to clean up are Ken's scars, John and Gwen's marriage of love and false pretenses, and June's relationship with Shirley — John's illegitimate child and a reminder to June of life and obligations she missed or abandoned. Relationships are pulled up like garden weeds, then studied for decay or growth before their futures can be decided. Now grown up, these would-be reformers use humor, denial, and ultimately honesty to reconcile the world they got with the world they tried to make.

So here's a serio-comic examination of what the turbulent 1960s were about. With Vietnam and Watergate in their rearview mirrors, Ken and Jed and their guests reflect the frustrating anticlimax that was the '70s, the decade of the world's longest hangover. (To acknowledge an obvious comparison: Fifth of July is nowhere near as pat and self-conscious as The Big Chill.) Yet however aimless and dysfunctional Ken and company can be, they retain a deep-down optimism that, dramatically at least, is characteristically American (making Fifth of July a thematic companion to William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life). A brilliant and humane dramatist, Wilson creates realistic, rounded characters — no stage-inflated good/bad guys, none with overdramatized psychological wreckage, just people dealing with life as best they can. What they display is Wilson's subtly tuned compassion for everyday folks, for characters who are as screwed up as the rest of us.

Fifth of July put Wilson on the theatrical map, and was among the first pieces of popular culture that contained gay characters in a work that wasn't about being gay characters. Through an air-tight, moving script built on flamboyant personalities, lyrical naturalism, and crackling virtuoso dialogue, Fifth of July crafts a world so evocative and rich — the world of the eccentric Talley clan, first family of little Lebanon, MO — that Wilson explored it further in three more plays. The second, Talley's Folly, nabbed the Pulitzer and the New York Drama Critics Award.

Most of this cast originated their roles on stage before bringing Fifth of July to television, so what's on view here are seasoned professionals who honed these roles through the most grueling gauntlet a working actor faces — live performances night after night before paying audiences without benefit of camera "takes" or judicious editing. In this case, "honed" means more than 500 Broadway performances from 1980 to '82. First presented by New York's renowned Circle Repertory Company and directed by Marshall W. Mason (who co-founded the company with Wilson), Fifth of July is an early highwater mark for its author, one of American theater's most important and celebrated playwrights. After Fifth of July moved from Off Broadway to the New Apollo Theater, Thomas took over the role of Ken from a young star on his way to cinematic fame, Christopher Reeve. For her interpretation of Gwen, Kurtz took Broadway's "triple crown" — the Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards. Jeff Daniels won his first widespread recognition in the role of Jed, and for three years played Jed Off Broadway, in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum, and on Broadway, where he won the Drama Desk Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Tasked with preserving Mason's directorial instincts through the transfer to American Playhouse, experienced studio director Kirk Browning's deft touch respected the drama's theatrical origins while simultaneously making terrific television. Browning's directing wraps around Mason's like a silk glove, and the result is both sensitive and invisible.

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This Broadway Theatre Archive DVD is one of the best and most accessible in the series. As usual, the original 1.33:1 transfer is better than one might expect for a 20-year-old TV print, and the clear, clean DD 1.0 monaural audio is more than adequate for the job. A slipsheet on Wilson is a dandy primer, and the stage/film histories are devoted to Thomas, Kurtz, and Daniels. Also on hand are extensive previews for thirteen Broadway Theatre Archive DVDs available from Image. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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