Fifth of July

Like Chekhov, Lanford Wilson weighs character more heavily than plot. In a staging that has heart and very few missteps, Phyllis B. Gitlin's cast allows Wilson's text about the Talley family (circa 1977) to unfold at its own natural pace—which is to say, leisurely.

Wilson explores family dynamics, as well as how former student activists years later face the "big chill" of real life.

At the focal point is Sean Gray's affecting portrayal of Ken Talley, running away from himself as a gay would-be high school teacher, former student activist, and disabled Vietnam War vet. Cheerfully scornful, Ken sees life's absurdities. Often using a voice and delivery akin to Dana Carvey's "Church Lady," Gray lends Ken a sweetness and centeredness that make him the calm in the eye of the storm. Gray also expresses Ken's bitterness and self-loathing, shown in his continual swallowing of white wine and pain pills.

As Ken's sister June, Jenn Robbins not only resembles Kate Winslet, she has a similarly potent and wholly natural acting style. As Ken's plant-loving lover Jed, Scott T. Finn is all sibilant S's and delicate mannerisms. Cort Huckabone is part obnoxious bully, part music-industry stud as Ken's childhood pal John, with Katherine Prenovost bubbly as John's orgiastically excited wife, Gwen. Tara Lynne Barr captures the naiveté of June's idealistic teen daughter, who dreams only of being world-renowned as a great performer (or artist or singer, etc.). As John and Gwen's spacey musician friend Wes, David Anton not only seems perpetually stoned but also blind, his eyes nearly closed in every scene. Harriet Whitmyer is delightfully loopy as the Talley clan's matriarch, Aunt Sally Friedman.

Despite a few too many unnaturally long dramatic pauses that mar the pace, Gitlin and company get the right tone, the serious moments played lightly and not harped upon, more potent than those that are presumably more comedic.

Presented by and at the Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. April 17May 23. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. (562) 494-1014 or