With its usual artful sleuthing, The Keen Company has unearthed a half-forgotten American treasure: a memory play that, in its current production at Theatre Row, makes a resounding case for its being mentioned in the same breath as The Glass Menagerie. The play is Lanford Wilson's Lemon Sky, and the production is as close to perfect as theater can be.Resolutely, resoundingly theatrical, Wilson's most autobiographical play is a look at the six months he spent post-high school with his estranged father and his father's new family in San Diego in the 1950s. Alan (Keith Nobbs) has left his desolate Nebraska hometown for a chance at the good life under California's lemon sky with his father Doug (Kevin Kilner). The picture-perfect family of the first act, complete with understanding stepmother Ronnie (Kellie Overbey), adorably precocious brothers (Logan Riley Bruner and Zachary Mackiewicz) and even his fascinatingly troubled foster sisters, gives way to the death of the American dream in the second as secrets are spilled, tempers flare and truths are told.
That may be putting the plot too baldly. Wilson and his narrator Alan's play is too supple and slippery to be reduced to a synopsis. As the characters of Lemon Sky fight for their rights (and Alan's memories battle for supremacy-to hell with chronology), what could have been a rehashing of old wounds turns into a gorgeous, generous examination of redemption-particularly the redemption that we grant ourselves.
Nobbs is heart-stoppingly good as Alan, who is coyly fey as his 1970s incarnation and admirably charming as his younger self. He knows the score and he knows the ending, but he can't help but fall in love again with who he thought his family was in the retelling. As he conjures them, we witness both their surface appeal and the desperation and betrayal festering just below the surface. His father's "hobby" of photographing young women in bikinis is both innocent and disturbing; his stepmother's insistence on being both the hip parent and the perfect subservient wife is understandable and appalling.
Director Jonathan Silverstein has an uncanny affinity for Wilson's men and women. Nowhere is found an easy, obvious performance. Even Alan's two foster sisters, pill-popping nymphomaniac Carol (Alyssa May Gold) and sweetly dopey Penny (Amie Tedesco) are given a depth and inner misery that belie their facile quips.
But it's in Silverstein's handling of the meta-theatrics of Lemon Sky that this revival becomes a must-see event. Alan is still haunted by Doug and Ronnie, both the perfect couple he wished them to be and the immensely flawed man and woman they were. He can't help interrupting his story to plaintively question Ronnie's motives or backtrack in order to avoid the painful scenes with his father that ended his stay in California.
Silverstein has imbued Alan's memories with a haunting desperation for answers. There's something about the interaction between the characters, the way they stagger themselves on the stage, that implies that this story is told every night with or without an audience-as if Alan is alone in a room somewhere, turning these six months of his early adulthood over and over in his mind like a smooth stone. Lemon Sky, and this production in particular, may come closest of any work of art to capturing what it means to remember-especially the things we'd rather forget.
Through Oct. 22, Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th and 10th Aves.), www.keencompany.org; $59.75.
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