Bangup cast tackles tough material head-on

Written in the shadow of the Vietnam War, novelist and one-time playwright Kurt Vonnegut didn’t hold back in Happy Birthday, Wanda June.

Indeed, this exploration of a hero’s homecoming lands with a punch at the Mary Miller Theatre in Lafayette as it examines the complicated role of masculinity and heroism in modern society.

There’s plenty of dark, Vonnegut-esque humor mixed in, of course.

Presumed dead after eight years missing in the Amazon, Harold Ryan (Kurt Keilbach) turns up at his apartment on the night of his birthday, expecting life to be just as he left it. Though his home remains the same — littered with the proof of his successful big game hunts — he finds his macho way of living disturbingly irrelevant.

His wife, Penelope (Joan Harrold), an adoring carhop when they met and quickly married, is now college educated and engaged to pacifist Dr. Woodley (Terence Keane). His son, Paul (Ayden Edgar), now 12, lacks the rub-some-dirt-in-it mentality Ryan demands.

Disappointed and angry, Ryan obstinately persists in his old way of life while those around him — including a vacuum cleaner salesman (Ian Gerber), his own comrade (Bill Graham), and a few folks in heaven (Hannah Richards, Shelby Beer and Stephany Roscoe) — suggest it’s time to step aside for a new type of American hero.

Acting that tackles tough themes

The actors, an exceptional all-volunteer cast, breathe life into a script many theater companies would be wary to take on, given its intense content. Keilbach and Keane stand out especially for their dedication in portraying Ryan and Woodley.

Rather than shy away from the discomfort of portraying a bitter, sexist man, Keilbach leans in to show us toxic masculinity in its ugliest form. Keane, in return, matches Keilbach’s emotional intensity, but relies on words instead of weapons. These two carefully juxtaposed characters, fully realized by Keilbach and Keane with superb direction from Brett Landis, suggest contradictory versions of manliness and heroism can exist.

But Vonnegut doesn’t choose a clear winner — that’s for us to decide.

We’re also invited to examine gender roles through Harrold’s convincing portrayal of Penelope, a woman whose identity has grown beyond that of a wife and mother. Though at times hard to watch as she’s told she’s only good for pleasure and cooking, Harrold gives us a colorful and layered performance of a woman fighting for respect.

Simplicity to capture absurdity

“This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing things and those who don’t.”

This opening line from Happy Birthday, Wanda June provides a glimpse into what’s to come: a play carefully balanced between grappling with complex ideas and exposing their absurdity through humor and simple character interactions.

Without the set, this absurdity wouldn’t be realized.

In a historic Lafayette church turned small theatre, the set comes to life: there’s a vibrantly colored wall fit for the ’70s, an obviously faux fur, jaguar-shaped rug draped across the couch, and stuffed animals meant for kids mounted on the wall as Ryan’s hunting trophies.

Laughable, to say the least.

With a play that lends itself to being potentially alienating to some onlookers, set designer Frank Landis and prop designer Omar Garces do an excellent job of capturing Vonnegut’s vision in a way that brings the audience in.

Taken as a whole, this shining performance asks us to consider what’s in front of us, even if we may disagree.

Outstanding local theatre

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is local community theatre at its best: challenging and fun with actors who aren’t afraid to go all in.

If you’re nearby, and even if you’re not, I recommend you check this show out before it closes on February 29.