Julius was never easy to have as a father, and it’s only gotten harder as he battles cancer. A Vietnam veteran, he badly damaged his relationship with his wife and children (especially the youngest, Nut, who was only eight or nine at the time) after he assaulted another family member, facing a manslaughter charge and losing his job of twenty years. He’s gruff and blustery with his children, and emotionally closed off with his wife, to the point where their children don’t understand why she married him. We never find out why the oldest son won’t come home, or even participate in an oral-history interview, when Julius is terminally ill (his cancer possibly caused, and at the least made more deadly, by Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam).
But the parent/child relationship is hardest for Nut. Nut is the youngest, the only one still at home during the period of the parents’ separation and thus the only one forced to spend awkward vacations alone with Julius, made more awkward by mutual wariness about showing affection. Nut is the one who’s desperate to understand Julius’s time in Vietnam, information Julius is reluctant, or unable, to share. And, crucially, the dying Julius still sees Nut as his younger daughter, not the twenty-something trans-masculine son Nut has grown up into.
Basil Kreimendahl’s Orange Julius is about the complex, shifting layers of relationship between Nut (Jess Barbagallo) and Julius (Stephen Payne). In the present, Nut tries to figure out a path to adult manhood and to find a bond with his father as as Julius grows sicker. But the play also operates in two other spheres of space and time: memories from the childhood that Nut is still trying to grapple with and understand, and Nut’s efforts to imagine, and to imagine himself into, Julius’s memories of Vietnam, into stories Julius will only hint at but that, in Nut’s mind, clearly formed him as a man and a father.
Nut’s mother, France (Mary Testa), and sister, Crimp (Irene Sofia Lucio), are, of course, part of this dynamic: Crimp with cherished memories of Julius that France swears never happened; France trying to use the little bit of money from Julius’s government settlement to give Nut something tangible. The humor in the play comes mostly from Testa and Lucio, but the heart of the piece belongs to Nut and Julius; France and Crimp are counterpoints to the play’s investigations about masculinity–how it cements certain kinds of relationships and damages others; how masculinity is taught and learned, born and made; and what it actually means to be a man, a father, and a son. But it’s also a play about memory, about the way memory builds, bolsters, and undermines identity, and the way it shapes Nut as he tries to tell the story that connects the childhood he lived to the adulthood he wants.
The way in which Nut is simultaneously enmeshed in and constantly analyzing and observing the family dynamics, trying to understand twenty-some years of history as that history slips away, reminded me at times of The Glass Menagerie, of Tom Wingfield’s complex web of resentment, fear, love, and protectiveness toward his family. But it’s also as a memory play that Orange Julius falters, relying too heavily on simple exposition that tells Nut’s after-the-fact interpretation of his past rather than capturing him still in the discovery of it. Barbagallo beautifully captures the mixture of guardedness and openness that Nut strikes with everything he says. Still, the memory monologues sometimes have an air of packaged anecdote rather than emotional journey, feeling repetitive rather than revelatory. Director Dustin Wills, here and in the Vietnam flashbacks, seems to be pushing toward a clear stylistic distinction between the three realms that may not be serving the unity of the play.
The Vietnam flashbacks are the most complicated piece: they’re not Julius’s memories, but Nut’s fantasies of memories, made out of images from Vietnam movies mixed with the things Nut learns and wishes he knew–and then populated by a character who is Nut’s imagining of what a real man and a real soldier would be. While the contrast (imagined by Nut and enacted strikingly by Payne) between the parent Julius and the soldier Julius is well worth watching, the flashbacks as a whole feel a little flat and repetitive, too.
When Kreimendahl, Barbagallo, and Payne hit a spark, a memory or an interaction that distills all the complexity of this father-son relationship into seconds–Nut putting Julius’s Vietnam photos in a flowered photo album; Julius describing model airplanes to Nut; Nut trying to convince France to let him lift his father into bed–the play is heartbreaking and keen-eyed. But with so much of the piece told in the stiffer flashbacks, it’s not as strong, or as moving, as it could be.