Happy Birthday, Wanda June

Why, we ask, fresh from the funerary exhibitions that sought to link present-day Washington to the so-called "good old days" of the '50's and '80's, would Miners Alley Playhouse resurrect Kurt Vonnegut's thirty-five year old dark comedy Happy Birthday, Wanda June? While it was popular with audiences during its six-month Broadway run, from the fall of 1970 to the spring of 1971, critics were decidedly mixed on the book, and its social commentary is at odds with the self-satisfied image promulgated by the half-dozen companies that control America's mass media.

On the surface, 21st century America bears little resemblance to America in the late '60's, other than the parallel of a country increasingly divided over a war on the other side of the world. Today, instead of massive marches and fiery rhetoric, the few citizens who have the gumption to protest are herded off the main thoroughfares to obscure intersections far from presidential motorcades, out of view of our leaders in bullet-proof limousines and the corporate journalists who serve as conduits for administration press releases.

Yet the issues raised by Vonnegut are strikingly relevant, and therein lies the rub. Harold Ryan, a legendary Hemingwayesque soldier of fortune, has disappeared in the jungle and is presumed dead after four years. His wife, Penelope, and young son Paul, are left in limbo in their spiffy Manhattan apartment, surrounded by Harold's weapons collection and his stuffed hunting trophies of exotic animals.

Photo of (L to R) Heather Day (Penelope), Mary Nepi (Wanda June), Aaron Carnevale (Harold Ryan), Joe Wilson (Colonel Looseleaf Harper)
(L to R) Heather Day (Penelope), Mary
Nepi(Wanda June), Aaron Carnevale
(Harold Ryan), and Joe Wilson
(Colonel Looseleaf Harper)
Photo: Walter L. Newton
In the absence of any reports on Harold, Penelope, like Ulysses' wife upon whom the story is loosely based, seeks to move on with her life, while her son, Paul, holds out hope, hanging on his dad's reputation as a survivalist. During these intervening years, Penelope, a knockout former roller-skating hamburger-stand waitress, enrolls in college, earns a degree, and now gleefully romances a peacenik doctor and a greasy vacuum cleaner salesman, while Paul fumes at the thought of anyone replacing his old man.

Then, Harold shows up with his mercenary buddy, Colonel Looseleaf Harper, an ex-Air Force rocket jockey who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki—and all heaven breaks loose. This is pure Vonnegut in his wacky, eclectic prime.

At first, we assume that we're watching a campy farce, reminiscent of Jay Ward's famous fractured cartoon from that period, with Dudley Do-Right saving his damsel in distress, Nell Fenwick, from the evil Snidely Whiplash. I half expect Heather Day's delightfully zany Penelope to screw her forefingers into her cheeks, and give us a big, toothy, Mary Sunshine smile at any minute. Then Jeffrey Haas' oily Herb Shuttle will twirl his moustache, and sweet talk her into a permanent relationship with his deluxe vacuum cleaner, forcing Chris Bleu's tie-dyed, bell-bottomed milquetoast, Dr. Norbert Woodly, to use his stethoscope to win back her heart. All this while Wanda June flutters her angel wings and plucks her harp.

But Aaron Carnevale's menacing, larger-than-life Harold, the fascist answer to Che Guevara, scares the bejeezus out of these melodramatic caricatures, turning the tale dark, and upping the emotional ante considerably. All bets are off, and Vonnegut has just pulled an inside straight.

Suddenly, the players are forced to wrestle with matters of conscience and realpolitik, as Harold's lethal personality mix of a hair-trigger temper and machismo promise imminent violence. It is a difficult transition in the play, forcing changes in characterizations, as if awakening from a pleasant but unrealistic daydream into a shockingly real nightmare.

The pivotal transformation is left to Joe Wilson's Colonel Looseleaf Harper, who morphs from loony comic relief to the conscience of the only nation to have used the atomic bomb in combat. Wilson's touching work provides a unexpected dramatic catharsis in the midst of an uncertain comedic tableau.

There are a number of other excellent performances as well, including Carnevale's riveting Ryan; Day's evolving Penelope; Wade Wood's Arte Johnson Laugh In sendup of a conflicted Nazi SS officer, Major Siegried von Konigswald; and Mari Hayden Nepi's Shirley Temple turn as Wanda June.

Other performances, however, are still in search of their truth—an uncertainty that, in combination with Vonnegut's sometimes difficult to execute mercurial twists and a cheesey approach to the heavenly set pieces, makes for some uneven moments, diluting what is otherwise a compelling story with an ending worthy of O. Henry.

Miners Alley Playhouse's production of Happy Birthday, Wanda June runs through July, 17th. 303-935-3044.

Bob Bows


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