There are many things to admire in August Wilson's King Hedley II, which opened last night at the Virginia Theatre; its capable cast and the script's vital social insight chief among them. Unfortunately, there are a number of other elements that prevent it from being considered among Wilson's finer works.
If you've read or seen some of Wilson's other plays, you'll be familiar with the basic premise of King Hedley II. As for the specifics, it's set in the Hill district in Pittsburgh in 1985, where Hedley (Brian Stokes Mitchell, giving an authoritative performance), wants to overcome the hardship and oppression he's been exposed to and make a better life for himself, his mother (Leslie Uggams), and his wife Tonya (Viola Davis). His immediate goal is to save up the $10,000 he needs to make a down payment on a video store he wants to rent with money from selling stolen refrigerators with his friend Mister (Monte Russell).
Wilson does manage to infuse his script with some genuine laughs and drama. Unfortuantely, it isn't enough to elevate the show, which suffers from a severe lack of focus. In a sharp, tightly-constructed play, the hours can fly by, but King Hedley II, which runs three hours, makes you aware of every minute. It's as if the story's exact form pacing were never fully fleshed out, and what remains are a lot of interesting pieces without the connections that would make them a complete play. It seems Wilson wanted to get everything in that he had to say, regardless of the effect on the play's dramatic impact.
Take, for example, one of Hedley's earliest confrontations with Tonya. She arrives onstage noticeably upset, and proceeds to give, with little prompting, a lengthy speech about the dangers of raising a child in the modern world. Though essential to both her character and the play as a whole, the speech feels more like exposition and than the tormented ramblings of an expectant mother. Likewise, Hedley spends a fair amount of time during the play attempting to grow a flower garden in something that a number of people do not consider "good dirt." The garden (planted firmly stage center) acts a marvelous obstacle and tension point for most of the play, but its importance seems to vanish as the evening reaches its all too predictable conclusion.
Marion McClinton's direction makes a significant attempt to diminish some of the problems in the script. Though it never completely succeeds, it never adds to the show's difficulties. Even more impressive is David Gallo's set, complete with run-down brick buildings and the stage literally covered over with dirt. Donald Holder's lighting design makes perfect use of the scenic elements, creating some particularly beautiful early morning and evening scenes.
The actors all do their fair share to help keep the show afloat. Mitchell's vocal and physical presence make Hedley a towering, powerful figure. He seems to understand Hedley's emotions fully, and presents a more rounded, complete character than the script often does. Leslie Uggams, as Hedley's mother, Ruby, is somewhat less successful, though her laid-back take on the character does provide some of the show's only warmth, and you even get to hear her sing.
Russell is hilarious as Mister, and brightens up the stage whenever he appears. Stephen McKinley Henderson has a few humorous moments as Stool Pigeon, the next door neighbor, but his novelty wears off quickly. Charles Brown as Elmore and especially Viola Davis give valiant performances, though each of their roles feels more like a plot device than a human being.
Like the garden Hedley attempts to grow throughout most of the show, King Hedley II feels like a work with the best of intentions that keeps getting trod on at the wrong time. Though fans of Wilson's other work will doubtlessly be enthralled, something in this production just didn't take root.
King Hedley II by August Wilson. Directed by Marion McClinton. Set design by David Gallo. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Rob Milburn. Waltz choreography by Dianne McIntyre. Fight direction by David S. Leong. Starring Brian Stokes Mitchell, Leslie Uggams, Charles Brown, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Monte Russell.
Theatre: Virginia Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Audience: May be inappropriate for children 12 and under. Children under 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Running time: Approximately 3 hours including one 15 minute intermission.
Schedule: Tuesday through Saturday 8 PM, Wednesday and Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM
Ticket prices: $70, $55 & $25 - Wednesday Matinee $60, $45 & $25 - A $1 Theatre Restoration charge will be added to the price of each ticket.
Standing Room: $20 Available at the Box Office only, day of performance only (when the Box Office opens), and only if the performance is sold out.
Tickets online: Tele-charge
Tickets by phone: Tele-charge, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - Inside the NY metro area (212) 239-2969 Outside the NY metro area (888) 268-2020
Tickets in person: Box Office hours Monday through Saturday 10 AM to 8 PM, Sunday Noon to 6 PM
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Tickets by snail mail: King Hedley II, PO Box 998, Times Square Station, New York, NY 10108-0998