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Thursday, March 31, 2005 08:35 pm

backstage pass 3-31-05

art1953

Missouri-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson has been writing plays since the off-off-Broadway movement began in New York in the 1960s. His first plays were produced at Café Cino and the still-in-operation LaMamma Theater. A few of Wilson’s plays made it to Broadway, and one, Fifth of July, will be seen here, in the University of Illinois at Springfield Studio Theatre, in a production directed by Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson that opens this week and runs April 1-3 and 8-10.

Fifth of July, set in 1977, takes place over a weekend in a Lebanon, Mo., farmhouse where several friends from college days at Berkeley have met for a reunion. It’s way up there on my list of favorite plays and was last seen here in a Springfield Theatre Centre production in the 1980s directed by Mike Savage.

Originally produced off-Broadway at the Circle Repertory Theatre in 1978, the play starred William Hurt as Ken Talley Jr., who has returned to his Missouri hometown after losing his legs in the Vietnam War. When the play moved to Broadway in 1980, Hurt’s role was taken on by Christopher Reeve and subsequently played by Richard Thomas. Swoosie Kurtz won a Tony Award for her portrayal of an heiress who wants to be a rock star.

The play is actually part of a trilogy Wilson wrote about the Talley family. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Talley’s Folly, which takes place at the family homestead in the 1940s. In that play, schoolteacher Sally Talley is wooed by a St. Louis accountant. In Fifth of July, Sally is in her seventies and the family matriarch. Shirley McConnaughay plays Sally in the UIS production, which also features John McAdams, Brad Hammond, Shirene Thomas, Anthony Wanless and Marie Pignon.

Fifth of July is a perfect choice for UIS, an ensemble piece with great roles. Actors love working on Wilson’s plays. He loves the characters he creates on the page. These characters came of age during the protest years of the ’60s, and in this funny and poignant play we find them reminiscing about the times and see how each has changed.

Go see Fifth of July on its opening weekend. You may want to see it twice. The play begins at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. It does contain mature situations and language and is not appropriate for children. For ticket information, call 217-206-6160.

• Beating the release of the big-screen version next fall, a stage adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begins a two-week run at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in downtown Springfield. The Active Creative Teen Theatre’s stage version of the revered C.S. Lewis children’s book is directed by Molly Mathewson and runs April 8-10 and April 15-17.

Mathewson has such a natural talent for acting (seen recently in Kari Anderson’s drama Born with a Veil) and singing (she performs with her dad, Mark Mathewson of WUIS-FM’s Bluegrass Breakdown), that it will be interesting to see what she does at the helm of a stage production.

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