It's not really the punch heard 'round the world, but it's not easy to tell at first. When Joe Louis knocks out Billy Conn, late in the first act of Seven Guitars, the assembled residents of Pittsburgh's Hill District listening to the match on the radio reverberate with an almost religious jubilation. When they break out into dance after the Brown Bomber's latest victory, their steps might be the choreography of Ken Roberson, but the music they - and we - hear is pure August Wilson.
Wilson, who died of cancer last year and is the Signature Theatre Company's subject for its 2006-2007 season, was an expert composer and conductor of both language and mood. The symphonies of words and feelings that define his decade-by-decade study of 20th-century African-American life capture all the passion and the pain of those 100 years with a resonance unmatched by many contemporary playwrights. That one Louis-Conn bout centers Seven Guitars (now at Signature's Peter Norton Space) in both its specific year (1948) and its more general position in the history of America's ever-shifting racial divide.
So when Wilson's characters do their dance, equal parts celebration and sex, it's a glittering moment in an existence - and, all too often, a play - in ruddy flux. This moment is both a monument to the basest of pleasures, as well as an indictment of them: Place too much faith in what can never be stripped away, and you're likely to lose it when you lose it. Joy, sexual, choreographic, or otherwise, is neither sacred nor lasting.
Much the same is also true of this production, which has been directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. A veteran of the play's original 1996 Broadway mounting (for which he won a Best Featured Actor Tony), Santiago-Hudson has little difficulty plumbing Wilson's verbal music for its emotional pull and personal insights. He's less successful, however, at navigating the tides of a messy second act, and assisting two actors miscast in crucial roles with finding their way.
Those actors, Lance Reddick and Charles Weldon, respectively play musician Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton and Caribbean immigrant (and apparent idiot savant) King Hedley. The characters' lives, intertwined by their attitudes toward money and their uncertainty of days ahead, provide rich material for the right performers: Floyd, just out of prison on a trumped-up charge and with an opportunity at a new recording deal in Chicago, is a plum role for an actor able to bridge angry desperation with brash likeability; Hedley, bereft of love and awash in complicated despair about oppression, must stew, spicily and silently, until his urges for security and procreation are met. Unfortunately, neither Reddick nor Weldon convinces, as each fails to demonstrate his character's specific need to escape his circumstances.
Whether plotting his trip to Chicago, romancing his on-again-off-again flame Vera (Roslyn Ruff), or raging against an unfortunate deception that threatens his potential music prosperity, Reddick's Floyd is less a man of action than of "so what?" indifference. You never believe that Floyd's facets all belong to the same flawed gem of a human being: Reddick plays him as seven strangers, of whom only one (the more giving gentleman Vera uneasily reveals) seems fully developed. Weldon suffers from exactly the opposite problem: He portrays only one tired, confused man, never showing us, as he must, how the musician, the energetic lover, the butcher, the revenge artist, and so on, all coexist within the same tormented body.
Floyd and Hedley are the heart and fearful soul of the play, and these deficiencies leave a gaping hole that the other excellent actors can't quite fill. Regardless, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Kevin T. Carroll, who play Floyd's bandmates, clearly communicate through voice and instrument alike (the terrifically bluesy music they make is the work of Bill Sims, Jr.) their own (smaller-scale) struggles against poverty, violence, and lovelessness. Ruff, hard-edged but soft-centered, is a fine, devoted-but-clear-eyed Vera; Brenda Pressley is a hearty hoot as the tough-talking, tougher-acting Louise; and Cassandra Freeman is moving and sensually funny as Louise's buxom niece, Ruby, on whom more than one man's future unwittingly rests.
Because of Wilson's play King Hedley II, which is set in the 1980s (and is also a part of the Signature season), we already know that future is also not a happy one. Aside from Reddick and Weldon, and the long stretches of the second act where Wilson's sometimes ungainly tempos spiral out of his directorial control, Santiago-Hudson has done a sturdy, admirable job of orchestrating these people's presents. Richard Hoover's oppressive yet homey set, Karen Perry's period costumes, Jane Cox's lights, and especially Darron L. West's haunting sound are, like the flow of language, important elements effectively realized.
As with Signature's previous season, tickets for all this year's productions are $15 for all seats at all performances. If this Seven Guitars does not completely satisfy, it's still one of the best values in New York. Isn't it more than worth the price of a CD to see these elated, wounded, and real people dancing and strumming so ecstatically to a music all their own?