Lanford Wilson put the small, rural town of Lebanon, Mo., on the theatrical map with a trilogy of plays that has made it as real a place as Thornton Wilder's Grover's Corners. The second of the trilogy, "Fifth of July," can be seen in an unusually sensitive made-for-television version on Channels 26 and 32 at 9 tonight.
The film is a showcase of effective, realistic acting, with most of the cast recreating roles they played in the original production at the Circle Rep in New York. Richard Thomas, who replaced Christopher Reeve in the part in New York, plays the central character, Ken--a homosexual, legless, Vietnam veteran and one-time radical who has inherited a rambling farmhouse, home to his family for generations. His performance is a fine piece of craftsmanship that allows the character's wry black humor, insecurity, fear, and love for his roommate, Jed, to come through.
Swoosie Kurtz won a Tony award for her performance, repeated here, as the neurotic heiress Gwen, an incipient hysteric who says frankly she's taken so many drugs her brain is fried, not to mention all the terminal illnesses she's had. Gwen, like her husband John, Ken and Ken's sister June, was a hippie radical in the '60s, but of the four only she has retained the slightly skewed, often tactless vision that allows her to see, speak and accept the truth.
The character that links this play with the others in the trilogy is Sally Talley, Ken and June's aunt, who in "Talley's Folly," set a generation earlier, married a Jewish accountant whose ashes she now keeps in an old candy box. June's illegitimate daughter, Shirley, an excessively precocious 13-year-old who dreams of becoming an artist, is the only over-written character in the piece.
The action takes place over a 24-hour period. Ken has decided to refuse a teaching job at the local high school because, during a visit, the students seem upset by his handicap. He wants to sell the house and move away, but during the play he comes to accept the prospect of resuming his teaching career, however intimidating it seems. Gwen and John try to buy the house, and old hostilities and unresolved conflicts surface. In short, nothing much happens in this play other than the interaction among the characters, and on the small screen this sometimes translates into a slowness of pace.
But this production offers a standard of acting rarely seen on television: Helen Stenborg as Sally; Jeff Daniels as the strong, nearly silent Jed; Joyce Reehling Christopher as angry, vulnerable June; John Landis as the opportunistic Jonathan; and Danton Stone as his inarticulate musician friend--each has created a rich, multilayered character. Directors Marshall W. Mason and Kirk Browning have, with a fine eye for the telling detail of small gestures and facial expressions, allowed the camera to enhance the performances.