If only Lanford Wilson’s autobiographical “Lemon Sky” were completely of its time, in 1950s suburbia.
If only young gay men didn’t have to hide who they are and be shunned by their parents, then this could be seen as a snapshot of an uglier time.
Yet this play about coming of age and being gay in San Diego in the 1950s remains relevant. Wilson, who died this year, was a Pulitzer winner, one of the founders of the off-off-Broadway scene and wrote many plays including “The Hot L Baltimore,” “5th of July” and “Balm in Gilead.” The Keen Company mounts the revival of “Lemon Sky” at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, and when Wilson’s work is staged, there’s reason to pay attention.
“Lemon Sky” is so raw in parts that it’s painful to watch. Yet it’s so well acted that it’s riveting. Except when Alan breaks to talk to the audience, which gets old fast. It’s still well acted, but the fourth wall is broken too often to bring us inside when we are already there.
“It can’t go on like this,” Alan says early on. “There will be a scene soon.”
Keith Nobbs turns in a self-effacing, loveable and all-around delightful performance as the star, Alan. Nobbs was also very good as the young journalist in “Lombardi” last year.
In this, he has just graduated high school, and has left his mom’s home in Nebraska to stay with his father, stepmother, two half brothers and two foster teenage girls in San Diego.
His father, Douglas (Kevin Kilner, “The Glass Menagerie”), tries to project what a Renaissance and cool guy he is. At best, he’s a dictator with a narrow mind, a wide ego and a quick temper. He works in a factory and immediately gets Alan set up with a job there. He’s also an amateur photographer but that’s mainly an excuse to ogle young women in bikinis.
Alan wants to attend school full-time and work part-time; his father has other plans. And whatever his father plans is what happens in this, his family. His wife, Ronnie (Kellie Overbey, “The Coast of Utopia”), is a very smart and seemingly complacent woman, but even she has limits with Doug’s idiocy.
Ronnie and Doug have two sons and have taken in two very different foster girls. Carol (Alyssa May Gold, an NYU student whose bio reads: “Studying transformation of perspective and equilibrium. Really.”) is a girl who knows her way around the back seat of a car. Penny (Amie Tedesco) is terminally mousy and wants to be a scientist. Carol pops pills and is trying to wed a rich conservative. Penny has a boyfriend and is ready to settle for almost anything.
All of them would be comfortable in the one house with its very 1950s kitchen, if only Doug could stop bossing everyone around and coming on to every female. But he can’t.
Each person is fully drawn; you can feel Penny’s abject abandonment — her parents died when she was a baby — and shudder at the sexual abuses Carol has endured.
But it’s the relationship between Alan and Doug that gives this play its tautness. Alan is such a sweet guy and he so very much wants to be part of this family. He needs a father, since Doug abandoned him when he was five. But Doug, who likes the mantle of fatherhood, never gleans a clue as to what unconditional love means.