"Lemon Sky" Charts the Below-the-Surface History of the 1950s

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Lemon Sky
Clurman Theater
Theater Row
410 W. 42d Street
New York, N.Y.

What really happened in the 1950s?  The’ 50s has got to be the most under-analyzed and under-studied decade in American history.  Eisenhower was president, the Yankees won most of the World Series, I Love Lucy was the television show everybody admired, the Korean War came and went, Elvis Presley became a star and the Russians launched Sputnik.

Beyond that, it was a quiet time, free of much public controversy.  High school girls who were taught that marriage should be their only goal all majored in Home Economics, skirts were long, patience was a virtue, civil disobedience was unheard of, homosexuality was well-hidden, cars were all three blocks long and savage family feuds were kept quiet.

That was the calm landscape playwright Lanford Wilson attacked in his 1970 play, Lemon Sky, just revived at the Clurman Theater on Theater Row, in New York.

Wilson’s play, which starts off slowly and moves along at a snail’s pace until just before the end of act one, pulls the bandages off all the wounds of the 1950s, wherever he can find them. He does it in a thinly veiled autobiographical story of a 17-year-old boy’s trip from his home town in Nebraska to live with his dad, who left him when he was five, in San Diego.

Although tepid in the first act, the play sizzles in the second act and soars in the last five minutes as the ‘50s and everybody connected to it explodes on stage.

Alan, the teenager, arrives in suburban San Diego in 1957 to find his dad a swaggering macho man with a second wife who is as submissive and quiet as all the other wives of the 1950s, content to have babies, cook dinner and overlook her husband’s faults.  Alan finds that he has two much younger half brothers. Jerry and Jack.  Two teenaged girls, the slutty Carol and the hypersensitive Penny, live with them as wards of the state (his dad is paid for their room and board).  They live in a very ‘50s house with beige color furniture and wear standard 1950s clothing.  The backyard is stuffed with chaise lounges around a barbeque.  Dad drives one of those long 1950s cars with the big fins on the sides of the trunk.

What Jack finds is a father who, on the surface, seems very sure of himself and a man completely in charge of himself and his family.  In reality, his dad his numerous sexual issues. He’s in a camera club and photographs teenage girls in bikinis and fondles his live-in daughter.  His wife, Ronnie, seems to know what is going on but says nothing to keep the peace in the household, as most ‘50s wives did.  Carol, the man-chaser, seems in control of herself and sister Penny, but events spiral out of control in her life.  Alan gets a job and seems happy, but his father pushes and pushes him to be the kind of man he is, or at least thinks he is.  When his dad thinks that Alan is gay, the dam bursts.  The clash between the father and son starts a chain reaction in the household that brings about a storm.

Director Jonathan Silverstein does a fine job of making cultural issues of the 1950s relevant and in masking Alan’s sexual identity for most of the play.  His directorial hand was awfully slow in the first act, but he steered the play masterfully in the second.

Silverstein received fine performances from Keith Nobbs as Alan, Kevin Kilner as his dad, Douglas, Kellie Overbey as Ronnie, Amie Tedesco as Penny, Alyssa May Gold as Carol, Logan Riley Bruner as Jerry and Zach Mackiewicz as Jack.

This play about the ‘50s, written in 1970, is like the many other plays and films about the era, all of which show the decade as a repressive time in America.  The country reveled in its victory in World War II, the economy boomed, racism continued to rear its ugly head, the Cold War loomed, the women’s rights movement seemed to have vanished, crazy trends appeared and disappeared (remember the hula hoop?).  Writers, directors and actors turned out soft, sanitizing films about the decade that buried the raw emotions of the people who lived in it.  Everybody’s issues were swept under the rug so that, like television’s Cleaver family, all could wave and smile.

This play, although too slow in the beginning, was a fine effort by Wilson to stick knife into the 1950s and watch it bleed.  It is a play, too, that shows that traditional, safe lives often go reeling when controversy arrives.

Playwrights and screenwriters have done a fine job of plunging into the political and emotional issues of the ‘40s and ‘60s, so why not a bigger effort at the 1950s?

The storied Wilson, of course, turned out a number of wonderful plays, including The Fifth of July, Talley’s Folly and The Hot L Baltimore. The playwright, who died last year, won the Pulitzer Prize for Talley’s Folly.

The play has its problems, but is a treasure chest of enjoyment for those interested in taking a look at U.S. history in the 1950s.  It has marvelous references to the ‘50s, such as talk of the Russian space victories, the wildly designed cars, the rise of labor unions, men taking lunch pails to work, naval history of San Diego, community picnics on the beach, universal adoption of sunglasses (oddly, there is no television, that was on all the time, on the set).

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Keen Company and Theater Row. Sets: Bill Clarke, Costumes: Jennifer Paar, Lighting: Josh Bradford, Sound, Obadiah Eaves. Directed by Jonathan Silverstein

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