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King Hedley II

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Cherise Boothe and Russell Hornsby.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

How can any man rule over a wasteland? Surveying the lifeless remains of the Hill District as depicted by August Wilson in King Hedley II, one is reminded less of the play's 1985 Pittsburgh setting than of the plague-ravaged Thebes against which Sophocles's Oedipus Rex unfolds. In both cases, the decay and hopelessness flooding the streets is outmatched only by that in the title character's heart, mostly due to a question of uncertain parentage; tragedy, the classic kind, is the inevitable result.

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.

Curtis McClarin and Lynda Gravatt.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It's a lot to assimilate under even the best of circumstances, but moreso than Wilson's other plays, this one feels more like a book of monologues than a tightly constructed piece of dramatic writing. When characters pause for upwards of 10 minutes at a time to air their grievances about the rotten state of the world, that same world around them grinds to a halt, making it difficult to sustain the rhythmic (let alone musical) cadences on which Wilson's plays so frequently depend. The characters seem more like symbolic representations of Reagan-era refuse than the breathing, vibrant people most of Wilson's other plays chronicle.

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.)

Russell Hornsby and Stephen McKinley Henderson.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

In bringing the play down to earth rather than expanding it to the skies, this production's director, Derrick Sanders, has encouraged an almost fatally contemplative evening that wallows more than it simmers or boils. Portentously paced, and on a set reimagining burned-out buildings as a Hollywood backlot (it's by David Gallo, who also designed the Broadway production far more realistically and effectively), this production gets bogged down in its own importance, never trusting the offstage death of the 366-year-old Aunt Ester or even the onstage sage Stool Pigeon (a grating Lou Myers) to serve their functions as spiritual and cultural guide posts.

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.

Lynda Gravatt and Stephen McKinley Henderson.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

But the production's real anchoring gravitas comes from the two veterans of the Broadway production: Lynda Gravatt brings a sensual dignity and a foggy mystery to King's mother, Ruby, making her completely convincing a weary consort-type concerned of what the days ahead of her hold. Stephen McKinley Henderson, the original Stool Pigeon, is excellent as Elmore, the wandering grafter whose fates are hopelessly intertwined romantically with Ruby and thematically with 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
Through April 15
Signature Theatre Company's Peter Norton Space, 555 West 42nd Street between 10th & 11th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Signature Theatre Company

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