There, however, is where most useful comparisons end. Chronologically the ninth in Wilson's decade-by-decade examination of African-American life in the 20th century, King Hedley II does not want for the luxurious language or searing speeches that have always been this playwright's trademarks. The characters, literally fighting for their lives in the war zone the Hill District has become, often feel too astutely aware of the times they're living in, which makes you wish - for about the only time in all of Wilson's cycle - that they would show more than they tell.
For unlike some great tragedies both traditional (Oedipus) and contemporary (Death of a Salesman), this is not a play able to easily contain all its words. Something of a sequel to Seven Guitars (which Signature also presented this season), it looks at the aftermath of that play from 40 years down the line, with a one character making a return appearance onstage, another one making vital contributions offstage, and plenty of references that newcomers will find esoteric if not outright baffling.
So it's all the harder to believe that characters like King, an ex-convict who wants to rebuild his life by buying a video store with money from selling stolen refrigerators, or his wife Tonya, who at 35 is already a grandmother and is pregnant again, believe that they are themselves living in what is their End of Days. Only a director and a cast who can bring size and urgency to these struggles will even have a chance at transforming the play from unsteady screed into a heartrending, soulful outcry. (The 2001 Broadway production, faced with the daunting task of filling the oversized Virginia Theatre - now, fittingly, the August Wilson - overcompensated in every area and just about made it.)
It's also difficult to accept that Russell Hornsby's clean-scrubbed King could ever kill a man, survive his subsequent seven-year sentence in prison, or declare that he'll incite World War III if ever he's crossed again. Cherise Boothe's Tonya is controlled practically to the point of catatonia, though you never sense her resignation is the result of exhaustion so much as confusion; it makes her seem so lifeless, it's not obvious what King sees in her. Closer to the mark is Curtis McClarin as Mister, King's partner in crime, who brings a nuanced sense of edgy comedy to a role that could too easily act as a mirror for the ever-darkening King.
It's only in Henderson that those twists and turns feel like fully realized personality traits rather than pencil sketches. In sculpting his portrayal of the ultimate survivor on the front lines, Henderson also connects most cleanly to the legacy of Wilson's other creations, without ever visibly working to continue the line into the future. In a play that is, at its best, an indulgent operatic meditation on what's come before, Henderson's performance goes a long way to prevent everything else from smelling as stale as it apparently wants to.
King Hedley II