Fifth-Rate Production

One-In-Ten Theatre Falls Flat With 'Fifth Of July.'
By  Jana Rivera 

I LOVE A good play where everything gels--writing, acting, directing, lighting. I especially love it when it's brought to the stage by a small company committed to performing plays that do more than entertain, plays that provoke thought and discussion and self-evaluation.

One In Ten is that kind of theatre company, and it would thrill me to tell you its latest effort, Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July, is that kind of production.

But I can't. Nothing gels here.

Wilson's 1978 play, part of his Talley Trilogy, which in addition to Fifth of July included Talley and Son (1985) and the Pulitzer-Prize winning Talley's Folly (1980), takes place in Wilson's home town of Lebanon, Missouri.

Ken Talley, a double-amputee Vietnam War veteran, and his lover, Jed, a gardening nut, live together in a 19-room farm house. On Independence Day in 1977, they're invaded by John and Gwen, Ken's old Berkeley roomies; June and Shirley, Ken's sister and her daughter; and Ken's Aunt Sally, who's come back to spread her husband's ashes.

Unlike most of One In Ten's productions that deal with issues of being gay in our oh-so-heterosexual society, Fifth of July does not. Wilson writes of Jed and Ken in hopes of instigating the appearance of incidentally gay couples in the theatre, but their homosexuality has nothing to do with the issues of the play.

The issues that Fifth of July does deal with include the backlash sentiment of the Vietnam War, fear of non-acceptance based on physical appearance, rebuilding self-worth, and dealing with a transition from the anti-establishment-protest days of the '60s to the "me generation" of the '70s.

Wilson writes keen dialogue for strong, realistic characters. His fully rounded characters--no obvious good guys or bad guys, no one with deep psychological problems, just people dealing with life--make his plays accessible to most audiences.

So if Wilson is such a great playwright, what's the problem here? Well, to be frank, just about everything else.

I'm baffled and disappointed. I've seen some high-quality productions in the past from One In Ten Theatre Company, but lately I keep checking my dates. I'm convinced I must be early. I must be watching a very early rehearsal, not the polished product. Any moment I expect director Rhonda Hallquist to jump from her seat and stop the torturous action taking place on stage.

But she doesn't, so this group takes a pretty good Lanford Wilson play and drags it down to an ugly demise that ends about 10:40 p.m.

Exactly how do they accomplish this? Well to start, seven of the cast of eight deliver lines so lifelessly and mechanically, I swear they're being fed through some recording mechanism going directly to the ear and out the mouth. But that can't be so, because if it were, all of those missed cues and forgotten lines wouldn't happen.

Wilson's words are written so the dialogue of the eight characters must bounce off one another. However, in this production the timing is so poor that when one character is supposed to be interrupted by another, she must stop and wait for the interruption--a pause so long and awkward, we begin to hope one actor will lean over and feed the other his line.

Stiff and clumsy movement leaves at least half the cast members looking as if they don't know what to do with themselves at least half the time, and a total lack of chemistry leads us to believe they've just been dragged in off the street and shoved onto the stage.

About the best thing I can say is they were really trying hard. But theatre doesn't sink much lower than sitting through a play where you're so aware of actors trying really hard to act. But there may be a flicker of hope. One significant redeeming factor in an otherwise dismal production is a stellar performance by Thom Blahnik.

A Tucson transplant from Denver, Blahnik portrays Ken Talley with such depth and sentiment, he's blatantly out of place (in a good way) on this stage. In spite of all the mediocrity going on around him, he thrives in his character and brings him off as the only person we can really believe in.

In light of this post-hippie-era play, One In Ten Theatre Company must surely be asking, "Where have all the people gone," (there were no more than 10 playgoers including me last Thursday), but it cannot answer that question without first dealing with the quality of its productions.

One In Ten Theatre Company's production of Fifth of July continues with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday through February 17 at the Historic Y Theatre, 738 N. Fifth Ave. Tickets are $10 at the door, $9 in advance, $8 for students and seniors. Call 770-9279 for and reservations information. TW

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