"No matter what anybody anywhere says, you can't separate a kid from his father." That's the brash pronouncement by a father who will soon doom (again) his own relationship with his oldest son, in Lanford Wilson's wry, disturbing 1970 drama, "Lemon Sky."
A sensitive young man's yearning for a father and family is at the heart of Wilson's poignant story, which opened Tuesday off-Broadway at Theatre Row in a stirring revival by the Keen Company. It was the first play by Wilson, who died earlier this year, written a decade before he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for "Talley's Folly."
Wilson's highly dramatic presentation jumps back and forth in time, as first the narrator and then several of the characters regularly interrupt the play to comment upon their memories from a perspective a dozen years later. Fortunately, director Jonathan Silverstein provides clarity to the memory fragments and time shifts, keeping his strong cast coherent as both their younger and older selves.
The 29-year-old protagonist and narrator, a writer named Alan, enthusiastically describes and enacts memories from the six months he spent at age 17, moving in with his long-estranged father and stepfamily and excited to begin his adult life attending college in 1957 Southern California.
Keith Nobbs portrays younger Alan with a well-calibrated mixture of bravado and insecurity. His older Alan is vigorously caught up in the story, his narration tinged with regret as he ruefully recalls awkward attempts to please his difficult, unstable father, and the too-brief enjoyment of getting to know his two young stepbrothers and a pair of teenage foster sisters.
Kevin Kilner is excellent as Douglas, Alan's falsely hearty dad, who had walked out on Alan and his mother in Nebraska 12 years earlier and soon remarried. Kilner presents a nuanced blend of machismo, barely simmering anger and increasing creepiness that requires Doug's wife, Ronnie, to be cheerily repressed. Kellie Overbey's complex portrayal of Ronnie makes her warm and loving, yet with an air of brisk reserve that subtly alters as she begins to see another side to her husband.
All around their new San Diego home, construction is underway amid the booming expansion of California during the 1950s, popularly referred to as "the promised land." Wilson wove in now-cliched but then-topical discussions of freeway traffic, citrus groves and employment in the aircraft industry, along with a poetic description of a destructive brush fire, that all provide authentic background for the increasingly tense family dynamics.
The teenage girls are expertly portrayed by Alyssa May Gold, as flashy, self-destructive Carol, and Amie Tedesco, winningly ducking her head as shy, studious Penny. Logan Riley Bruner as Jerry and Zachary Mackiewicz as little Jack round out the cast as Alan's playful young brothers.
Troubling family conversations alternate with normal interactions among the kids and Ronnie, played out on a minimal set by Bill Clarke that notably features an indoor-outdoor brick wall in citrus colors, and a shiny, round kitchen table and chairs. The contrast is sharp between the sunny California dream home features and its occupants in darkening emotional turmoil.
Events escalate downhill to a melodramatic implosion that, while expected, is still painfully tragic, although Alan is propelled toward maturity and self-knowledge. Just before a series of unpleasant revelations, Alan muses that, in the state of California, "so much is honest and so much is impossible to admit." It's a recognizable and bittersweet situation, whatever state you're in.