An Outsider Plays an Outsider, Blown on the Wind: Parker Posey in "Fifth of July"

LANFORD WILSON'S 1978 play "Fifth of July" focuses on four friends who were politically active and romantically intertwined in college during the late 1960's. They reunite 10 years later in small-town Missouri at the farmhouse where two of them, Ken Talley and his sister, June, grew up and where they now live with their widowed Aunt Sally; June's adolescent daughter, Shirley; and Ken's lover, Jed.

Into this setting, in a town where the church is the center of social activity, blows a tornado named Gwen Landis, an heiress and aspiring rock star, with her manager-husband, John the other half of the college foursome. The character of Gwen serves as outside agitator, scorching and cleansing everything in sight. And in the Signature Theater Company revival that opens tomorrow at the Peter Norton Space, this bundle of neurotic energy and uncensored impulses is played by Parker Posey.

Ms. Posey arrives onstage as something of an alien herself, visiting from the world of low-budget filmmaking, where her track record has earned her, at 34, the title Queen of the Indies. Her hair alone speaks volumes about energetic, attention-deficient Gwen. Ms. Posey had dyed her hair light for a role in Christopher Guest's forthcoming mockumentary about folk music, "A Mighty Wind," and then dyed it darker for "Hell on Heels: The Battle of Mary Kay," about the cosmetics maker, for which she received a Golden Globe Award nomination this year.

For "Fifth of July," Ms. Posey said: "I wanted the roots to show; I put rollers in the front, and the back is just slept-in. After all, this is somebody who went to the Bermuda Triangle to try to disappear!" She burst out laughing, and added, "I know this person really well."

As a teenager growing up in Laurel, Miss., Ms. Posey studied acting in the summer program at the North Carolina School of the Arts and then in college at SUNY Purchase. But she dropped out in her senior year to do a soap opera, "As the World Turns." Having moved to New York (where she still lives), she found more opportunities in film than in theater. Her only two previous experiences onstage Lawrence Kasdan's 1995 production of John Patrick Shanley's "Four Dogs and a Bone" in Los Angeles and Elaine May's notorious Broadway flop, "Taller Than a Dwarf" in 2000 were unhappy ones. "It's a drag when your reviews are bad," she said, "and you go to your corner deli for coffee, and the guy says, `Ahh, flatter than a matzo!' "

Meanwhile, she has been in more than 40 low-budget, actor-driven films, like "The Daytrippers" and "The Anniversary Party." And she is part of the hip ensemble of comedians with whom Mr. Guest has created his largely improvised satires, "Waiting for Guffman," "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind."

"In a movie you do the scene and let it go," Ms. Posey said recently, on the play's set. Rehearsing, she said, "I had to keep reminding myself: `I'm not doing this again because I did something wrong yesterday. I'm digging deeper.' That's really fun."

Among the four plays that the Signature has chosen for its season celebrating Mr. Wilson's work, "Fifth of July" represents his nearly three-decade association with the Circle Repertory Company, the Off Broadway theater group that came to an end in 1996. The original production of the play (which is part of a trilogy, with "Talley's Folly" and "Talley and Son," about the Talley clan) was staged by Circle Rep's artistic director, Marshall W. Mason, and showed off the company's resident ensemble in its prime. The cast included William Hurt in the central role of Ken Talley, the Vietnam veteran who lost both legs in the war; Jeff Daniels as Jed; Nancy Snyder as Gwen; and the Circle Rep stalwarts Jonathan Hogan, Danton Stone, Joyce Reehling and Amy Wright, with Helen Stenborg as Aunt Sally. When "Fifth of July" moved to Broadway, Mr. Hurt and Ms. Snyder were replaced by other Circle Rep veterans, Christopher Reeve and Swoosie Kurtz; the play was filmed for television with Richard Thomas in the leading role.

The star power of the production 25 years ago has made the current revival both a challenge and a discovery for those involved. In addition to Robert Sean Leonard, who plays Ken, and Ms. Posey, the cast that the director Jo Bonney has assembled includes Jessalyn Gilsig, Michael Gladis, Sarah Lord, Ebon Moss-Bachrach and David Harbour as John and Pamela Payton-Wright as Sally.

But what ultimately has proved most compelling about "Fifth of July" (the play takes place during the Independence Day holiday in 1977) was its thematic timeliness, said James Houghton, the Signature's artistic director: virtually everyone involved noted that the play has a resonance today, with the threat of a foreign war and questions about its motivation.

The 60's are often portrayed as a period of foolhardy idealism in which pot-smoking young people in tie-dyed T-shirts raised a lot of ruckus but accomplished nothing. And some characters in "Fifth of July" convey a sense of failure. That is not historically accurate, though. Civil rights for black Americans and sexual freedom for women and homosexuals looked very different in 1980 than they did in 1960, and the changes didn't happen by themselves. "Fifth of July" reflects the shaky dance of idealism and resignation, the desire to band together to make a better world, and the fear that makes people want to give up.

"Lanford has a light touch when he's talking about these things," Ms. Bonney said, "but the time is right to talk about what it's like to lose your sense that you can change things."

New York Times, February 2, 2003