review: lemon sky

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Lemon Sky

Written by Lanford Wilson
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein
Featuring Keith Nobbs, Kevin Kilner, Kellie Overbey
Keen Company at Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
September 13, 2011 — October 22, 2011
production web site: http://www.keencompany.org/upcoming/index.shtml

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 25, 2011

  • “You have to know what the hell you’re doing.” (Douglas)
  • “It hurts. Everything.  All Over.” (one of the foster girls)
  • “Weren’t we in a play a little while ago?”
L-R Keith Nobbs, Kevin Kilner, Kellie Overbey. In background Amie Tedesco and Alyssa May Gold. Image by Richard Termine.

Memory.  Lanford Wilson‘s autobiographical young man Alan (Keith Nobbs) takes us as narrator and primary character, in a fourth-wall-never-there structure, from a 1970 present 15 years or so back (the playbill tells us) to the pivotal year he graduates from high school, leaves his childhood home with his mother in the Midwest, and travels  by bus to San Diego to live with his father Douglas (Kevin Kilner) who abandoned them.  Alan recalls his efforts to know his father, his father’s new wife Ronnie (sweetly and calmly played by Kellie Overbey), and their two young sons, and two teenaged foster daughters who have been thrown in for good measure and no clear reason.  The young man before us on stage throughout the play is the 17-year-old (in appearance, in wisdom) of the past events described. Our “present” of 1970 is the 1970 of the play’s premiere and from today’s perspective that date seems unclearly fixed or unnecessarily precise in this current production.  Dreamstate, conversing with the audience, characters talking among themselves about whether they’re in a play at all, memory sharded theatre.  All these elements function inconsistently in this production, with moments of lovely poetry.

Our characters edge around the corners of telling the story.  Talking over one another, interrupting side stories, in a manner that has become more common since this play premiered.  The characters themselves work attempting to find meaning in themes.  One character says at one point to the audience about the bickering and interrupting sequences: “It can’t go on like this of course.  There will be a scene soon.”  When the story gets its act together, it tells of a young man’s search for meaning, of a stepmother and stepbrothers who treat him kindly, of a father who seems to be full of secrets and anger and 1950s repressed rage.  And two foster daughters — free-spirited Carol (Alyssa May Gold) and good girl Penny (Amie Tedesco) who are there in the house, just there, with little explanation, providing a taste of Rebel Without A Cause and adolescent danger, without our hero Alan having to leave the premises. Hints at stories, rage in abeyance, a death discussed from a safe remove.  We are told in materials about the play that this story is also about Alan’s homosexuality over which his father rages, but intriguingly this production’s attempts to find the universal in the alienated youth theme makes that part of the story murky.  These are actor exercises that don’t quite reach the audience on an emotional level in this production but are fun to observe.

The small Clurman stage is separated quite literally for the dream space this play’s story occupies by set designer Bill Clarke — patio, bedroom, living room, kitchen of a 1950s California ranch house.  Director Jonathan Silverstein has characters watch stage action from the edges during some scenes and not others and the selection process is not clear for identifying which scenes merit this treatment and which do not.  In the end, we have a mix of genres (realistic to dreamy) that never quite hit a consistent emotional stride.  Carol tells the tale after the fact in Alan’s never never land in-between remembering state, of plummeting to her death in a boyfriend’s car — with humor, no feeling.  Ronnie the step mother talks of staying with emotionally abusive and possibly unfaithful Douglas for the good of her young sons, with no emotion in her voice only resolution and conviction.  We have sexually free Carol’s snide pill-induced humor, the young boys laughter, Douglas’s rage.  And the rest of the story is presented in calm matter-of-fact descriptive language.

For this reviewer, the end result is a well acted reflective exercise rather than an emotionally potent theatrical experience.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 28, 2011)

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