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. HHHH

"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: HHHH Don’t miss; HHH You won’t feel cheated; HH Maybe you

should have stayed home; H Don’t blame us.

Facebook Comments