Monday, October 3, 2011

'Lemon Sky,' Early Lanford Wilson Play, Gets A Mixed Production

 A Sour Reunion:  Keith Nobbs and Kevin Kilner

Playwright Lanford Wilson, who recently passed away after a most distinguished career, was considered by many to be the theatrical heir of Tennessee Williams. 

I can’t say that I fully buy into that premise. 

Wilson did have a Williams-like way of creating vulnerable characters who are filled with emotional longing. But when it comes to capturing the poetic beauty of the English language—as Williams was able to do in his masterworks from the 1940s, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire—other names come to mind ahead of Mr. Wilson's.
One is Robert Anderson, whose play about father-son warfare, I Never Sang For My Father, was given a splendid production last year by the Keen Company, under the direction of Jonathan Silverman, who wisely allowed Anderson's marvelously-crafted words to take center stage.  It didn't hurt that the production featured multi-layered performances by veteran actors Keir Dullea and Marsha Mason. 

The Keen Company identifies its mission as one of producing “sincere plays” that are “generous in spirit and provoke identification.”  With I Never Sang For My Father, that mission was fully and most satisfactorily realized. 

Now the company and director Silverman are back with another “sincere play,” an early work by Lanford Wilson called Lemon Sky.   Unfortunately, the results are not quite so sublime, despite some standout performances, most notably from Keith Nobbs who carries the lion’s share of the play on his shoulders as Wilson’s stand-in, Alan, and Kellie Overbey as Ronnie, Alan’s stepmother.

The play presents us with Alan’s recollections of a summer-long reunion with the father who abandoned him and his mother when Alan was only five years old.  Dad had fled from the family home in Nebraska to Southern California, where he now lives with Ronnie, their two sons, and two teenage foster girls.  Still, no hard feelings, until what begins as a relatively pleasant attempt to reconnect gradually grows disturbing and ugly as secrets and lies reveal themselves.

Lemon Sky is a difficult play to bring to fruition on the stage.  For one thing, it constantly breaks the fourth wall as characters stop what they are doing in order to address the audience.  It also jumps back and forth across time between the late 1950s, when most of the action takes place, and 1970, where Alan serves as narrator of his memories of that earlier period in his life.

To hark back to the Tennessee Williams model, Lemon Sky is a “memory play.”   

When I previously wrote about last year's Roundabout Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie, I argued that what we were presented with represented Williams' memories only as these were carefully filtered through many drafts and rewrites.  We were allowed to see only what Williams wanted us to see, and not what he truly remembered.  

In a sense, Lemon Sky is more realistically memory-like; it depicts both the playwright’s recollections of a particular time in his life and the messy act of trying to recall and sort through past events.  Wilson gives us memory as it actually occurs, in a non-linear fashion with many asides and tangents.  

That’s all well and good, but it might have helped if some effort had been made to separate the time periods.   It took me a long while to figure out we were  leapfrogging across time, since nothing about the staging or lighting hinted at what was going on, and 17-year-old Alan and 30-year-old Alan looked and acted exactly the same.  

The difficulties with the storytelling are not helped by the set that is clumsily spread out across the stage of the Clurman Theatre  and a mixed bag of acting, with an unfortunate weak link in Kevin Kilner as Alan’s father, Doug, who should give us the creeps but who seems, at most, annoying. 

The most interesting character is the cheery, chirpy Ronnie (well played by Ms. Overbey), who seems to be a stereotypical Southern California ditz until we begin to see the consequences of the poor yet entrapping bargain she made for herself when she ran off with Doug. 

This production of Lemon Sky is worth the visit only if you are a Lanford Wilson fan and want to catch one of his early efforts.  I can’t fault the sincerity, but I wonder if perhaps the Keen Company and its director might do better with something more straightforward.   Another Robert Anderson play, perhaps?

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