Author Kurt Vonnegut is known for his satirical novels, but over the course of his career he also wrote several plays. Theater Company of Lafayette is staging the literary giant’s 1970 classic “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” at The Mary Miller Theater. The witty show that opened on Valentine’s Day tells the complex story of husband and father Harold Ryan, an adventurer and war hero, returning home after being presumed dead, with his friend Col. Looseleaf Harper, who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.
In the eight years that Harold had been MIA, his wife Penelope took two suitors who couldn’t be more different from her macho husband. Her fiancé is pacifist hippie Dr. Norbert Woodley. She’s also dating Herb Shuttle, a vacuum cleaner salesman. To Harold’s dismay, his own son Paul isn’t measuring up to what the brute thinks a young man should be. Hilarity ensues when gruff Harold — with Caveman-like ways — attempts to find his place in his altered household and in a new society touting peace and love.
“I had read the play many years ago after stumbling over it at a bookstore,” said director Brett Landis. “I was struck by how similar it is to Vonnegut’s style in his novels, and how that could translate into a truly unique live theater experience. I’m so glad TCL gave me the opportunity to do so.”
While the production is set in 1960s America, it focuses on a subject matter that will still resonate with audiences today — just as it did in the post-Vietnam War era.
“Kurt Vonnegut wrote a play about toxic masculinity in 1970, before ‘toxic masculinity’ was even a phrase,” Landis said. “More than just poking fun at the subject, the play really examines its effects and how difficult it is for people to resist it. This topic remains incredibly timely. You can’t watch the news without seeing or hearing about deeply problematic behaviors that are a direct result of the negative ways we have taught people to behave. If we don’t start talking about these things now, we run the risk of amplifying that behavior.”
The opening line of the play sets the tone with, “This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing, and those who don’t.”
“Playing Harold has been a provocative experience,” said actor Kurt Keilbach. “He is a volatile mixture of charm, intelligence, frustration and hatred. I have found that he has a host of profound insights throughout the play but then descends to the depths of ugly misogyny and racism the instant he is challenged in any way.”
During the course of the show, it is revealed that in the war Harold killed more than 200 men and women, and countless more animals — for sport.
“The same actions and intentions Harold took in war — which makes him a glorified mythical hero in this show — are the very ones that also make him a threat and ultimately a shattered man after the war has ended,” Keilbach said. “The best warriors may end up being the worst citizens because, in achieving victory, the world they knew and were trained for no longer exists.”
While Harold is completely obsessed with the concept of letting his manliness reign, audiences can actually find comic relief in his misogynistic tendencies. He’s a bit of a caricature, subscribing to the “women in the kitchen” school of thought. Underneath the absurdity is significant commentary on chauvinism.
“I’ve always been drawn to plays that have something to say, but use dark humor to make their points,” Landis said. “It’s like they trick you into thinking about difficult subjects. Also, I love plays that have complicated parts for women. Penelope is an incredibly difficult and varied role, and we were lucky to have an actress — Joan Harrold — playing the part who could really bring her complexities to life.”
Interjections from dead characters residing in heaven bring an element of dark quirk to the play. Audience members get to hear from Harold’s first wife Mildred, who drank herself to death, and Nazi Maj. Siegfried von Konigswald, Harold’s most infamous victim. Audiences also hear from the play’s namesake Wanda June, a schoolgirl who was tragically struck by an ice cream truck prior to her birthday party. As morbid as that sounds, her character is actually happy with her place in the spiritual realm.
“Ten-year-old Wanda June is technically a ghost and is such a fun, playful and unique character to play,” said Hannah Richards, who is also the public relations director of Theater Company of Lafayette. “I am a former teacher and I used a lot of those kids as inspiration for her. She is, in a lot of ways, a representation of innocence and frailty in a world of uncertainty.”
While the play takes jabs at machismo culture, it also shines a light on feminism.
“Penelope’s journey to independence is universal and empowering,” Richards said. “If you think of her journey to find strength, you can probably think of a few women who went through a similar struggle and a few who are preparing for it. The theme of peace is a timeless concept that we will always struggle with.”
If you go
What: Theater Company of Lafayette’s production of “Happy Birthday, Wanda June”
When: 2 p.m. Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Feb. 29
Where: Mary Miller Theater, 300 E. Simpson St., Lafayette
More info: tclstage.org