“Fifth” Just a Pint Short 

Barksdale Theatre’s “Fifth of July” sparks but doesn’t set off fireworks.

This problem is just one of a few key weaknesses that hinder what could have been an exceptional show. This complex tale of family dynamics played out against a backdrop of the war-torn ’60s generates a number of good laughs and strikes some resonant notes, particularly in light of our country’s current overseas conflict. But the play’s ultimate effect is underwhelming. The script is uneven and director Bruce Miller seems at a bit of a loss trying to improve it.

“Fifth” tells the story of several friends and family members who gather at the old Talley place in Lebanon, Mo., on Independence Day. It’s 1977 and the house’s owner, Ken Talley (Steve Perigard), is still trying to recover from losing his legs in Vietnam. His cousin June (Jill Bari Steinberg) and her daughter Shirley (Riley Koren) have brought Aunt Sally (Jody Strickler) down to the house to lay to rest the ashes of Sally’s husband, who died a year before. But the arrival of John and his hyperactive wife, Gwen (Jennifer Massey), has turned the weekend into a reunion: It turns out that John, Gwen, Ken and June all roomed together at Berkeley in the early ’60s. As they rehash old stories and recount recent sorrows, a series of conflicts culminates in a galvanizing decision.

If the plot sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Wilson helped establish a whole genre of reunion-type stories, typified by “The Big Chill.” But Wilson’s story never finds a consistent rhythm and the ending has the too-pat feel of a sitcom.

Miller doesn’t help with his static staging, which too often has the whole cast sitting around watching one or another talk. He also misses opportunities to reveal the play’s rich subtext. When John and Ken join to badger a friend of Gwen’s (the groovy musician Weston Hurley, played by Scott Wichmann), we should get a glimpse of their sexually charged childhood friendship. Instead, when Ken tells us about it later, it comes as a complete surprise.

The play looks good, with a spacious and comfortable living-room set designed by Robert O’Leary that transforms into a garden patio for Act II. Yet Lynne Hartman’s lighting doesn’t seem to change when the action moves outside.

The first-rate cast also delivers some exceptional performances. Perigard strikes a perfect balance between wry sarcasm and self-pity, while Koren is the embodiment of preteen emotional tempestuousness. Wichmann could get laughs reading the White Pages, and he makes the most of the kooky but not-quite-clueless Weston.

But the true stunner here is Chris Evans, who portrays Ken’s young lover Jed with an effortless precision. His understated brilliance helps make this a production that is consistently engaging, though never quite enchanting. S

“Fifth of July” runs at the Barksdale Theatre at the Shops at Willow Lawn through April 25. Tickets cost $28-$32, call 282-2620.

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