Kurt Vonnegut’s "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" is at the Wells-Metz Theatre in IU’s Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center through the week in a neatly staged, well-acted production, directed by guest Scott LaFeber.
Fans of Vonnegut’s darkly ironic novels will not be surprised to learn that the almost ten year old Wanda June, the bouncy, braided Jennifer Whitney, has been run over by an ice cream truck and is happily playing shuffleboard in heaven.
The Hemingwayesque Harold Ryan, a sort of mini Ulysses, played by the bearded John Armstrong, returns from eight years in the jungle. He’s accompanied by his boon companion, Colonel Looseleaf Harper, Clay Sanderson, the man who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. After eight years, Harold’s insurance company and his wife, Penelope, Renee Racan, have given him up for dead. Harold finds his Penelope being courted by a garishly plaid trousered vacuum cleaner salesman, Zachary Spicer, and a peace-loving doctor, Eric VanTielen. Harold’s Penelope, unlike Homer’s, is not sure she wants the adventurer back. In the eight years of his absence, she’s done a lot more than sit at home and weave. She’s had a variety of life experiences and picked up a master’s degree along the way.
In "Happy Birthday, Wanda June," Kurt Vonnegut’s Harold Ryan is a man who simply lives to kill things. Animal heads adorn his living room. Stories of the men, women and children that he has shot, knifed, garroted, poisoned and simply choked to death are the proud defining memories of his life. We hear about the killing-Harold in action from one of his most famous victims, the Nazi Major Von Kongiswald aka "the beast of Yugoslavia," Patrick Doolin. The Major is now a happy heavenly shuffleboard partner of Wanda June. We also hear about the prematurely-ejaculating-Harold from his third wife, the alcoholic Mildred, Taylor James. Actually Mildred seems to be angrier at Harold’s memory than the Major. Harold’s teenaged son, Cody Girten, seems the most conflicted about Harold. He’s both fascinated with and repelled by the father whose image he idolized.
"Happy Birthday, Wanda June" is Kurt Vonnegut’s only play. He has said that the experience convinced him that he was no playwright. I’d agree that some of the speeches are better read than said and that the final extended scenes of "…Wanda June" are too drawn out and repetitive. But Vonnegut’s fertile imagination, amusingly ironic wit, insights and interesting characters are still solid values.
Scott LeFeber’s direction in the open spaces of the Wells-Metz always made good sense. The skill of all the actors reflects the strength of IU’s MFAs and undergraduates. Chris Sinnott’s design worked nicely along with the creative lighting and sound of Gregory Brenchley. Katherine Garlick’s costumes evoked the common elements and the extremes of the early seventies.
The IU Theatre production of Kurt Vonnegut’s "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" plays each evening this week in the Wells-Metz Theatre.