The Fourth of July is a holiday known for its grand traditions, from wild fireworks to delicious barbeque. But what happens the day after, as everything fizzles out and all the celebrations have been celebrought?
“Fifth of July,” a play by the Missouri-born playwright Lanford Wilson, deals with the aftermath of the Vietnam War era. Unlike modern times, war veterans of the Vietnam era were not often given a warm welcome home.
“Vietnam veterans came back to a very difficult life,” says David Crespy, the play’s director and a professor of playwriting, acting and dramatic literature. “Those that were injured didn’t even know what PTSD was, had very little support, and worse, people blamed them for the war.”
The baby boomer generation is often recognized for organizing many cultural revolutions, and while many social changes began to take place, a lot of the generation’s other goals were never achieved.
“In a lot of ways, the boomer generation succeeded in changing society, but in some ways, by 1978, a lot of the protests hadn’t been realized,” Crespy says. “People were left with a big hangover, struggling to make sense of it all, and so ‘Fifth of July’ is really about that moment after the Fourth of July.”
The play takes place in a fictionalized Lebanon, Mo., following the lives of Ken Talley, a veteran of the war, and his boyfriend Jed Jenkins. Talley, a double amputee with two above-the-knee prosthetics, struggles with confronting his issues by either running away from them or ignoring them altogether; Talley faces an ever-ticking clock.
“He uses humor as a defense mechanism and doesn’t really show a lot of feelings, but they’re always there,” Joshua Johnson, who plays Talley, says. “The majority of the play is about him making a decision about what to do with his life. It’s about whether or not he’s going to fall backward into his old habits of drinking and not committing to anything, or if he’s going to stay and make the best out of his hardships.”
Crespy says a big part of the decision to put on “Fifth of July” was because of the new generation of war veterans returning from foreign lands. He also thinks the play is about anyone who has had to struggle with being an amputee, and hopes that these issues are really brought to the forefront. Furthermore, MU and Wilson happen to share a decades-long history.
“Wilson left all his papers to MU in Ellis Library,” Crespy says. “We have 53 linear feet of all of his plays, so a big part of the research I did was to look at his original notebooks that we own. It’s a huge gift to have this Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s work here at the university.”
The relationship between Talley, Jenkins and the other characters is the focus of the play, as it’s very dialogue driven. Preparing for the performance, both Johnson and Jarrod Beck, who plays Jenkins, regard chemistry as the cast’s biggest asset.
“Josh and I were friends before the show, and, obviously, because we’ve spent so much time together, we’ve gotten even closer,” Beck says. “With the kind of chemistry that Ken and Jed have, we really had to become even better friends along the way.”
Citing character development, Johnson sees the pair’s existing friendship as a tremendous tool for moving the play along.
“Jarrod and I were both in ‘No No Nannette’ together last year, and there’s something about him that makes me want to really be around him,” Johnson says. “When he auditioned, he was the only person that went for the kiss, and I think it was that extra bit of commitment to the role that really sealed the deal for him.”
In addition to the time spent on stage, the cast works with the crew on multiple levels, from sound and lighting to blocking and costume design. The setting requires a lot of props, including the occasional macramé owl, to portray the groovy ‘70s vibe. Similarly, music by artists like Fleetwood Mac and Lynyrd Skynyrd accompanies the show, transporting the audience back to a more psychedelic time.
“I cannot praise our stage manager, Olivia Boyer, enough,” Johnson says. “She’s probably one of the best stage managers I’ve ever worked with. It’s nice to work with people who really know what they’re doing, and put effort into it down to the littlest details.”
Beck says that while the cast and the crew have just begun working together, he is excited about how passionate and dedicated they are.
As plays go, “Fifth of July” is almost interactive, and the audience’s presence proves very necessary to the narrative. With a relatively naturalistic play, the ritual of coming together as a family becomes much more real when the audience is physically there, Crespy says.
Everything in the play circles back to Talley and his interactions with the people around him. In many ways, Jenkins’ loyalty can be seen as a contrast to Talley’s fear of commitment.
“Jed is obsessed with this garden that he’s growing at the Talley house, and he’s been working on it for the last three years like it’s his own child,” Beck says. “Ken has always either run away from decision-making or let someone else make them for him, and so I think Jed is the first real commitment that he’s made in his entire life.”
And while Talley and Jenkins are a gay couple, Beck doesn’t see that as the most important part of “Fifth of July.”
“I hope that people don’t focus on the issue of the homosexual couple in the play, because I feel like that’s not what this play’s about,” Beck says. “There’s so much more to this play than just the fact that there are two men in a relationship in it.”
At the heart of a play is its cast, and Crespy seems to look upon his cast with the eyes of a proud parent.
“I think what makes them a great cast is that they’re already a family,” Crespy says. “It will be interesting to see what happens with that family, because it will be new and fresh every evening.”