Soon after entering the Signature Theater Company’s Peter Norton Space, theatergoers will see that the setting Richard Hoover has designed is as evocative and as meticulously considered as the characters who inhabit it. And, upon exiting the theater after almost three hours, there will be no doubt that the late August Wilson (April 27, 1945 – October 2, 2005) was a playwright who could create the sort of vivid characters who define a time and a place with only their presence and their words.
This is the seventh play in Wilson’s decade-by-decade plays exploring the experiences of African-Americans in the last century. It has been 10 years since “Seven Guitars” appeared on Broadway, but its indelibly etched characters are now made more so by a superb cast that measure up to the highest standards. The original Broadway production, under the direction of Lloyd Richards, ran at the Walter Kerr Theater for 188 performances plus 13 previews in 1996.
In the current production at the Signature, a rotting barricade fence provides a degree of privacy around the dirt backyard area of a brick rooming house. A cellar door leads to a basement. A small garden in a corner bravely confirms the presence of nature at this enclave in the African-American Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1948. Nature expectedly takes a back seat to the lives of seven culturally and emotionally entwined characters compelled to tell their stories, address their personal demons, confront an unforgiving society, and retaliate.
This production, under the sensitive direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, breathes with a freshness attained through courageously individualized performances and the infallible integrity of the staging. It is enhanced by original blues music by Bill Sims Jr., which helps to establish the artistic side of the play’s principal character, Floyd Barton (Lance Reddick), as well as consider the time and legacy of archetypal Chicago electric guitar bluesman Muddy Waters (referenced in the play).
Floyd’s recent death and subsequent funeral have brought together those closest to him. The somber atmosphere at the opening is broken as Louise (Brenda Pressley), a beautician, descends from her second floor apartment a bit sloshed and sings “Anybody here wanna try my cabbage just step this way; Anybody here like to try my cabbage; Just holler Hey”, as Floyd’s musical partner/harmonica player Canewell (Kevin T. Carroll) and drummer Red Carter (Stephen McKinley Henderson) squabble over a piece of sweet potato pie. It should be noted that Santiago-Hudson played the role of Canewell in the original Broadway production.
As Vera (Roslyn Ruff), Floyd’s girlfriend, describes a vision she had at the funeral of Floyd ascending to heaven accompanied by six angels, the scene dissolves for a flashback to Floyd’s returning penniless from Chicago to Pittsburgh after serving 90 days in the workhouse for vagrancy.
Unquestionably driven more by character than plot, “Seven Guitars,” nevertheless, stands out in the canon for the exceptionally impassioned dialogue as well as the personality details that propel and buoy seven individuals whose fate is being determined not only by the culture and the time in which they live, but also by their dreams and their willingness to hope.
The artistry of ensemble performing is in evidence everywhere. The tall and lanky Reddick is almost scarily persuasive as the frustrated yet patently ambitious Floyd, who desperately wants to re-ignite the romance he had with Vera before he took off for Chicago with another woman. That he wants to persuade Vera to go back to Chicago with him provides the key to the play’s principal plot device. Ruff, who was terrific in the McCarter Theater production of Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” gives a stoic yet poignant performance as Vera, who is torn between her love for Floyd and her pride. As Canewell and Red, Carroll and Henderson, respectively trade off contrasting attitudes and alliances, as they are unwittingly forced to watch Floyd’s hopes being whittled away.
Brenda Pressley lets attitude speak for itself as the sincerely kind if outwardly blase Louise. Cassandra Freeman is a looker and perfect as Louise’s sexy cousin, Ruby, who arrives from out of town with a bit of a past following her. Charles Weldon stirs up a lot of dramatic juice and touches our heart as Hedley, the occasionally crazed boarder dying of tuberculosis who kills and sells chickens for a living. He also dreams of having an heir to carry on his name. (Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” set in 1985, was produced on Broadway in 2001 and will be a part of the Wilson season at Signature).
The intimacy created at this theater with only 160 seats is felt most effectively during Floyd’s heart-breaking monologue in which he vents his anger and his inability to overcome the obstacles that have prevented him from realizing his dream. This is a production that should be seen by everyone who enjoys seeing the best in American dramatic literature presented in the finest dramatic tradition. ****
“Seven Guitars,” Signature Theater Company’s Peter Norton Space, 555 W. 42nd St. Signature has established a special $15 ticket price (regularly $55) for all performances in the originally scheduled eight-week runs of the three plays in the August Wilson series: “Seven Guitars” (through October 7), “Two Trains Running” (November 7 through December 31) and “King Hedley II” (February 2007). Performance schedule” Mondays at 8 p.m.; Tuesdays at 7 p.m.; Wednesday matinees at 2 p.m.; Wednesday through Fridays at 8 p.m.; and Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. For subscription and single ticket information, call 212-244-PLAY (7529).
The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.