Feud for Thought

A theater critic can't afford to have a favorite play. Saddled with personal preference and fond memories of a first performance, he's apt to overlook the show's flaws once it's revived.

But my response to Lanford Wilson's Lemon Sky hasn't been equaled in the 14 years since I first saw it--despite the fact that I've seen an average of three plays a week over the past seven years. Back then, I filed away this stirring two-act drama, alongside Joseph Mankiewicz films and Girl Scout cookies, among my favorite things.

And so I went with some foreboding to a student production of Lemon Sky at Arizona State University the other night, fearing that nothing--not even a production instigated by the show's original director, renowned director and ASU faculty member Marshall W. Mason--could live up to the brilliant stagings of the show I've seen before.

I was mistaken. This production--the first of three Wilson plays that will conclude in May with a new collaboration between the playwright and Mason, who co-founded the legendary Circle Repertory Company--isn't flawless, but it does capture the surreal quality of Wilson's story. Set in the early Seventies, Lemon Sky looks back on a troubled time 22 years earlier, when then-teenaged Alan (Ken Matthews) moved to California to live with his father, Doug (Oscar Giner), and Doug's new family. Father and son duke it out, uncovering one another's weaknesses as well as the dark secrets that plague this none-too-perfect Fifties family.

Wilson eschews traditional flashback structure, inverting the reality of his play so that we're always still in the present, with the players reenacting their pasts for our consideration and occasionally addressing us directly. The fourth wall has been torn down repeatedly since, but not half as stylishly.

Director Victoria Holloway has corralled a delightfully dysfunctional family from an excellent cast, which features a stunning turn by Equity actor Ruth Reid.

Trista Baldwin presents the most fully developed performance as nerdy Penny, a teenaged ward of the state who lives with Alan's new family. We care about Penny immediately upon meeting her, because Baldwin infuses her with an awkward charm and a giddy warmth, which we're afforded from no other character here, not even the cute kids or the effusively friendly mom.

No one, it would seem, knows the truth behind the perfect American family better than Lanford Wilson does. When, at the end of this rousing recital, the entire company storms forward to call out their final noisy pleas, I'm always both chilled by the horror in their voices and delighted by the power of this rare piece of writing.

Lemon Sky continues through Sunday, March 14, at Lyceum Theatre on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela