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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

Spoon River Anthology

Perhaps Spoon River Anthology is better appreciated as poetry on the page, or straightforwardly recited, than dramatized. American Century Theatre and director Shane Wallis may be trying too hard to bring out the nuances of Edgar Lee Masters' 1915 series of poems, as adapted for the stage in 1963 by Charles Aidman, because it comes across as self-conscious and not especially dramatic.

While Spoon River Anthology tells its stories in the form of confessions beyond the grave, Wallis has chosen not to stay with a readers' theater presentation of actors reciting from set places. Rather, he goes for a stylized rendition, with speakers telling the stories while other actors in the eight-member ensemble act them out. The device actually works against the power of the words by distracting the audience from the speakers.

Spoon River Anthology
(foreground) Theo Hadjimichael and Patricia Williams
(rear) Caroline Ashbaugh, Edward Daniels, Anna Marie Sell

Jennifer Tardiff has costumed the performers in threadbare, dusty versions of everyday costumes from the early 20th century, with one addition: ragged lengths of cloth threaded between vents over the shoulder blades. These drapes serve, in turn, as angel wings, shrouds, swaddled babies, and other symbols.

Jan Forbes' scenic design is neither here nor there. Instead of a literal depiction of a graveyard or an abstracted town scene, Forbes scatters stalactites and stalagmites around the stage and backdrop, with irregularly shaped blocks as part of the performance space. (Tree stumps? Boulders?)

Masters wrote more than 200 poems describing the residents of the tiny Illinois town of Spoon River. Aidman selected the most “dramatic” ones in his adaptation, so the audience sees an innocent woman sent to prison as an accessory in the murder of her husband by her lover; a church deacon and Prohibitionist with a secret taste for alcohol; a servant, seduced by her employer, who gives up her child to be raised by the wealthy father and his wife; a woman who can never escape the stigma of her rape as a child; and an outwardly righteous man tortured by his indiscretions and their effect on his daughter.

At the same time, many of the stories are ironic or whimsical. The milliner's daughter flees Spoon River for money, glamour and lovers in New York and Paris, but is brought back to town after her death; a young woman finds love and satisfaction in life despite being born blind; African-American Fiddler Jones lives without regret, earning everything he wants in life by making music; the august Alexander Throckmorton meditates on the ambition of youth and the wisdom of age; and elderly Lucinda Matlock reflects on her 96 years, saying, “It takes life to love life.”

Of the eight performers, the one true standout is Patricia Williams, whose luminous eyes and fervent voice bring life to characters including the child rape victim, a wife trapped in a miserable marriage, and the sanguine Lucinda. The other performances range from adequate to difficult to watch.

American Century Theatre
Spoon River Anthology
January 6th – 28th
Adapted by Charles Aidman from the poems of Edgar Lee Masters
The ensemble: JJ Area, Caroline Ashbaugh, Edward Daniels, Theo Hadjimichael, Ellie Nicoll, Sasha Olinick, Anna Marie Sell, Patricia Williams
Directed by Shane Wallis
Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang St.
Arlington, VA 22206
Ticket Information: 703-553-8782 or www.americancentury.org


Photo: Jeffrey Bell


-- Susan Berlin


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