Not stuck in his career, but stuck dramatically, playing a character who has made non-choices in his life and found himself unable to move on. It's not by mistake that playwright Lanford Wilson made Kenneth Talley Jr. a wounded veteran — taking steps isn't easy. Leonard continues in the Signature Theatre Company's well-received revival to March 23.
"It's a play a lot of people know in college," Leonard said of the 1978 Wilson work. "I think at 20 you don't really — at least I didn't — know what the lead role means: The idea of someone ducking out of life. When you're 20, you don't know what giving up means, whether it's drink or some other drug or whether it's just plain giving up on life."
The Wilson play, set in the mid-1970s at a Fourth of July reunion of '60s radicals, is an ensemble experience echoing Chekhov, with characters reluctant to acknowledge the reality of their situations and past relationships, and unable to map the path they took in life.
Leonard said he responds to the fact that Wilson doesn't give up all the secrets. The actors and audience must figure them out.
"I don't think Ken knows what to even begin to be angry at," Leonard said of thirtysomething Kenneth Talley, a Vietnam war critic who nevertheless went into battle after his personal life fell apart. "I think he's miserable and lost, and I don't think he has the slightest clue as to what his problem is or what the solution is or who to even blame for it." In the play, Kenneth reunites with his sister, June, their hometown pal, John, and John's wife, Gwen. They all attended Berkeley a decade earlier and were planning to change the world. The plan 10 years earlier was to run away and avoid the draft and the war. John and Gwen left without Ken, so he joined the armed services and lost his legs.
"When John asks him, 'Did your going to war have anything to do with me or Gwen?' I know he says 'no,' but I don't quite believe it," Leonard said. "I think it had to have something to do with it. I think he was destroyed. They planned it for six months, and one day he turned around and they were gone. I think for some people love, and the promise of what love is going to be, is so powerful that when it goes sour they don't necessarily embrace death, but they certainly embrace losing control and just throwing their life into the fan and seeing what happens."
Why did Ken go to war? "For me, he was in love with John and John wasn't in love with him," Leonard said.
The pungent thing about Wilson is, every actor might answer differently, and every audience member may have a different response.
Leonard said he loves being part of an ensemble, and he's no stranger to it having played The Iceman Cometh, The Invention of Love (for which he won the Tony Award) and a Boston production of Long Day's Journey Into Night (playing Edmund, which he'll do again on Broadway this season opposite Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave and Philip Seymour Hoffman).
"I've never done a one-person show, but I have talked to people who have," Leonard said. "They say it's a pretty lonely feeling to rehearse every day alone, to get to your dressing room alone, to hit the stage alone. I think, the more the merrier. In a play like this, it's so beautifully scored and the ensemble element is so vital and important. And I like everyone in it so much."
The characters in Fifth of July today would be in their 60s. In the present, in 1977, Ken's partner, Jed, plants sapling hedges on the property of the old house where the play is set. Does Leonard ever imagine what happens to characters in the future, beyond the text?
"The play ends with Jed sitting there realizing he's home," mused Leonard. "I think they're probably still there — and the hedges are still there."
Beginning March 25, Michael Cerveris takes over the role of Kenneth, as Leonard rehearses the new Broadway revival of Long Day's Journey Into Night. Fifth of July continues to April 6 at Signature's Peter Norton Space on West 42nd Street.
Fifth of July, part of Signature's season of Wilson plays, began previews Jan. 16. The cast includes Jessalyn Gilsig (June), Michael J. X. Gladis (Jed), David Harbour (John), Sarah Lord (Shirley), Ebon Moss-Bachrach (Weston), Pamela Payton-Wright (Sally) and Parker Posey (Gwen).
For additional information, visit signaturetheatre.org.