What’s old is new again in the theater – the themes of plays from the past are made frighteningly relevant by what’s currently happening culturally, making shows that only a few years ago would have seemed dated seem eerily fresh. Happy Birthday, Wanda June, written in 1970 by Kurt Vonnegut, has merit on its own as a Vonnegut piece – but in our make-America-great-again society, it’s now become a piece with bite.
Penelope Ryan (Jocelynn Murphy) has been in limbo for eight years – her husband, famous big-game hunter and war hero Harold Ryan (Kristophe DiMaria)’s plane disappeared over the Amazon rainforest and he and his friend Colonel Looseleaf Harper (Michael Sinkora) haven’t been seen or heard from since. Harold has been declared dead, and she’s dating two men: Dr. Norbert Woodly (Andrew Vroman), a pacifist who lives across the hall with his mother, and Herb Shuttle (Sam Buti), a vacuum-cleaner salesman. Her son Paul (Alastair Dun) idolizes his vacant father and has not lost hope he will see him again. When Harold and Looseleaf return home, it throws the household into disarray and pits Harold’s hypermasculinity against Penelope’s newfound sense of self-worth and Norbert’s gentle nature.
Murphy is a wonder here; I haven’t seen her onstage in almost a decade, and she’s even better than I remember. She’s the heart of this production; Penelope’s role isn’t an easy one, and she absolutely nails it. The comedy, drama, heartbreak, fear and anger in her character are all fully realized and she is so dynamic to watch. DiMaria is, physically, perfect as Harold; he’s got the catlike physicality of a man who’s spent more time living outdoors than in and the larger-than-life quality of a man who’s a legend in his own mind. Lines were a bit of an issue here and there, and some speech was garbled (this happened with a few actors – I think slowing down and working on enunciation would benefit most of the main male actors in the production). Vroman’s got the soothing voice you’d want from a doctor (and a pacifist, as well) and is well able to spark into anger when it’s needed; I’ve enjoyed seeing him on area stages lately. Buti and Sinkora were both strong in their roles, and Gabrielle Greco, as Wanda June, was heavenly (once you’ve seen the show – pun most definitely intended).
Harold’s toxic masculinity, disregard for anyone’s feelings but his own, desire to get things back to the way they were before he left – the “right” way – and contempt for anyone he considers weak and women may have been humorous in the ‘70s (or, I’d assume, in humorous bad taste), but he’s a modern conservative now, adding a whole new layer to the show and making it both timely and terrifying. Co-directors Michael Lake and Nicholas Muscatiello have done strong work with this piece, and I’m very much looking forward to what they, and this young, thoughtful group – a welcome addition to Capital Region theater – come up with in the future.
“Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” Will Kempe’s Players; The Arts Center of the Capital Region, 265 River Street, Troy (May 11-13) and Albany Barn, 56 Second St., Albany (June 15-17); $20; Run time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission; (518) 396-7832; www.willkempesplayers.com