With its comedy doorbell and tendency to act as a platform for strange and surreal guests such as a Nazi officer and a poor little dead girl, Happy Birthday Wanda June almost gives the impression of a 1960s sitcom, stepped out of the black and white television set and into reality. And yet despite the sometime bizarre, and often very funny cameos, performances such as Vincent Jerome’s Harold Ryan convey a real sense of menace and aggression constantly bubbling under the surface of this nostalgic America. For through characters such as Harold, a hunter and soldier returned home after eight years in the wilderness, Kurt Vonnegut’s only play explores the ever changing face of masculinity in a post war world that has seemingly put down its weapons.
These ideas of masculinity are fantastically conveyed by director Ant Stones, in fine details such casting every male character before Harold’s arrival as female. It seems that, in Harold’s absence, this ruthless and untamed masculinity that he embodies has dissolved into forms such as the pacifist doctor Norbert Woodly and pathetic vacuum cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle, both of whom are desperately in love with Harold’s wife Penelope and feel his shadow loom in every corner. The result of this casting adds huge weight to Harold’s arrival, as if finally, after all the tales we have heard about him, a “real man” has come forward to set things right. Jerome captures this brilliantly, pacing up and down the tiny living room like a caged animal and adding a very real sense of intimidation to every scene between him and Penelope’s suitors.
And yet the real strength of this production lies in the unravelling of Harold’s masculinity, his castle beginning to crumble under the weight of a new America that believes him to be “obsolete.” Scenes such as when Dr. Norbert confronts Harold with this idea, build the tension until it threatens to overflow into a conclusion both funny and tragic, just as Harold is, in the eyes of America. With brilliant performances all round, Happy Birthday Wanda June expertly captures both the comedy and the darkness of a play that bristles with relevance even today.