Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June

William Aitken and Kari Ginsburg
Happy Birthday, Wanda June, the 1970 play by Kurt Vonnegut now being presented by American Century Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, is a work very much of its time, but Vonnegut's absurd, comic examination of changing attitudes in American society remains interesting for its perspective on issues that, in rather different form, remain relevant today.

In this zany reimagining of Homer's Odyssey, Harold Ryan (William Aitken), a bullying warrior and big game hunter in the mold of Ernest Hemingway, returns home after an absence of seven years. While Harold's wife Penelope (Kari Ginsburg) can't bring herself to dispose of the animal trophies that decorate the apartment they shared (designed with wit by Trena Weiss-Null), she has written off her husband as dead and moved on with her life. Unlike her son Paul (Adin Walker at the press performance), who maintains a heroic image of the father he never really knew, Penelope sees Harold clearly and wants to start over with a gentler, more thoughtful man.

On Harold's birthday, Penelope has a date with Herb Shuttle (Brian Razzino), a nerdy vacuum cleaner salesman, while her neighbor Dr. Norbert Woodly (Brian Crane) —a man so sensitive he constantly seems about to dissolve into a puddle of goo —comes over to keep an eye on Paul. That's when Harold, not dead after all, swaggers in with his friend and pilot Looseleaf Harper (Joe Cronin), a nice enough fellow who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945.

"Something very important must have happened while we were away," Looseleaf says, noting that people are now using vulgar language without apologizing. However, that's nothing compared to what Harold experiences when he tries to tell Penelope —whom he just calls "wife," since she's one of several he's had in his life —how she is falling down on the job by refusing to return to her former existence as his domestic servant and sex slave. (He also calls Paul by the generic title "son.")

Aitken seems to be having a great time as the smug, self-righteous Harold, a larger-than-life figure who survives by crowding out or smothering the people around him. Ginsburg does well standing up to him, and Crane is a hoot as the ultimate exaggeration of empathetic, caring 1970s manhood (remember Alan Alda during that era?).

The strongest element of this production is Rip Claassen's period-perfect costume design, highlighted by swinging mini-dresses in vivid prints and a short leopard-skin coat with feather trim at the hem. Unfortunately, director Ellen Dempsey has been less successful with the pacing of the piece: each scene ends in a blackout and the next begins shortly after, but with no music or sound effects to bridge the gap.

American Century Theater
Happy Birthday, Wanda June
March 7th —29th
By Kurt Vonnegut
Penelope Ryan: Kari Ginsburg
Looseleaf Harper: Joe Cronin
Paul Ryan: Andrew Newman or Adin Walker
Dr. Norbert Woodly: Brian Crane
Herb Shuttle: Brian Razzino
Harold Ryan: William Aitken
Wanda June: Rachel Weber
Siegfried von Koningswald: Bill Gordon
Mildred: Deborah Rinn Critzer
Directed by Ellen Dempsey
Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang St.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information:

Photo: Ian Armstrong

-- Susan Berlin

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.

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