By Daniel Skora
There’s a lot going on in Lanford Wilson’s “Lemon Sky”, the current presentation of The Puzzle Piece Theatre. Partly autobiographical, the play’s main character Alan (Jeffrey Miller) leaves his home in Nebraska as a seventeen year old for the Promised Land of California. Wilson did the same in 1956, heading for San Diego a year after graduating from high school. In California, Alan reunites with his father Doug (Sergio Mautone), who is now living with his second wife Ronnie (Paige Vanzo), events which also parallel those in the life of the author.
Doug’s current family consists of his two sons, Jerry (Analise Schroeder) and Jack (Gus Schroeder), and two foster daughters, Carol (Allison Megroet) and Penny (Maggie Beson). Essentially a play about family, the one Alan discovers when coming to live with his father is not a functional one. Doug is a braggart and a blowhard, and when not working at his blue collar job at an aircraft plant is an amateur photographer whose primary focus is taking cheesecake photos of young women at camera shows. At first Doug is delighted Alan has come to stay with him, but as he slowly discovers his son shares none of his “manly” interests, he begins to turn on him.
Ronnie is a bit of a blank page, neither embracing her husband’s outlandish behavior nor calling him out for it. Her primary purpose seems to be keeping her family together, and if that means remaining indifferent to her husband, so be it. And while it would seem that the presence in the home of the two foster daughters might indicate that Doug and Ronnie have at least some capacity for love and compassion, the two are there only because the money the State pays for their room and board is a welcomed addition to the household income.
Carol is a surly young woman, wise to the sexual crudity of Doug’s rantings for which she calls him out repeatedly. Her boredom and lack of self esteem are alleviated through drugs, and she finds affection in promiscuous relationships. Penny is more of an introvert, but still waters run deep, and her inability to find some kind of peace in her existence is part of the play’s dramatic ending.
Alan also serves as a narrator and frequently breaks from the reality of the play to address the audience from his point of view several years into the future. His comments on the time he spent in his father’s home are steeped in melancholy, and watching the play unfold through his eyes becomes much like looking through an album of old photographs.
California exists in the play as metaphor. In its crystalline beaches, in its boundless vistas of land and water and sky, in the very airplanes it creates and the unruly rumblings of its earthquakes, it speaks of beauty and freedom and greatness. People have found themselves continually mesmerized by California’s siren call, from the early days of the Gold Rush to the dreams of our young man Alan, who wished only to find love and community in the home of his father. But California can also be brutal, and when its forests burn with rage, its blue skies can glow with a sickly yellow color.
“Lemon Sky” is directed by Puzzle Piece Associate Artistic Director Laura Heikkinen, who also contributed costume designs. Set, sound, and light design are by Producing Artistic Director D.B. Schroeder. Puzzle Piece does a nice job reviving this early work of an esteemed American playwright. And Schroeder’s musical selections featuring songs by James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young, and Procol Harum create an aura of contemplative dignity that would otherwise go unrecorded.
“Lemon Sky” runs through February 19th. Tickets are available online at www.puzzlestage.org, by phone at 313.258.3885, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with number of tickets and desired performance indicated. Puzzle Piece performances are held at the Slipstream Theatre, located at 460 Hilton in Ferndale.