The late Lanford Wilson, who died this past March, wrote restless plays that never stay put in simple categories: They create a constantly changing world, mirroring the shifts of Wilson’s rapid, vivid imagination. One of his earliest full-evening plays, Lemon Sky (1970), just revived by Keen Company at Theatre Row, now looks, in retrospect, like an opening announcement of the riches that Wilson would soon be supplying in profusion. A big, boldly assertive canvas, it suggests, superficially, a rue-tempered yet idyllic memory play, in the spirit of The Glass Menagerie, a quasi-autobiographical study in family tensions, with alienated writer-son as narrator.
But “idyllic” is distinctly the wrong word for this particular bask in suburban SoCal’s sunshine and scenery. Seventeen-year-old Alan (Keith Nobbs), Wilson’s narrator, is more alien than alienated, a Midwestern child of his father’s unhappy first marriage, arriving, in the mid1950s, to meet not only the befuddling new landscape, but also a befuddling new family: Douglas (Kevin Kilner), the father he has only seen once since early childhood; Ronnie (Kellie Overbey), Douglas’s second wife; their two small sons (Logan Riley Bruner and Zachary Mackiewicz); and two teenage wards of the state whose foster-care payments supplement the family income, hung-up Penny (Amie Tedesco) and messed-up Carol (Alyssa May Gold).
Ripe for implosion, this unfamilial family setup comes already blasted open. Wilson uses Alan’s narration from an adult vantage point a dozen years later as a cue to paste events, moments, feelings, and realizations together in the helter-skelter order of a scrapbook, only animated and sped up. Even meta-theatrics get stirred into the mix: Characters step out of time to challenge Alan’s recollections or comment on their own deaths in the interim between the events and his retelling.
Like waves hitting the Pacific shore, the script’s multidirectional medley of perceptions keeps crashing into the laid-back, Californian ease of the narrative to produce a constantly fascinating—and ultimately devastating—effect. Jonathan Silverstein’s production builds to it, painstakingly and for the most part subtly, overplaying his hand only by letting the two young girls edge toward stereotype. Overbey conveys, warmly and skillfully, Ronnie’s compassionate complexity; Kilner is the first actor I’ve seen to catch Douglas’s charming panache along with his brutality. As for Nobbs, his tousled hairdo, roller-coaster vocal pattern, and self-rewriting body language so resemble the young Lanford Wilson’s that authenticity could hardly go further.