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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at Peter Norton Space

By Stuart Miller

  Russell Hornsby

"Brisk" and "fast-paced" are not words usually used to describe a three-hour play, especially one that focuses less on action than on aria-esque monologues. But a healthy dose of velocity is essential in distinguishing King Hedley II, the final production of the Signature Theatre's August Wilson season, from the original 2001 Broadway production. The urgency director Derrick Sanders imbues his cast with from the very first scene gives this Hedley an emotional punch that the muddled original lacked.

This play is also strengthened by its proximity to Signature's season opener Seven Guitars, since these two plays have the strongest direct links in Wilson's cycle.

Seven Guitars took place in 1948 and ended with Hedley, the ranting old man who spewed unspeakable truths, mistakenly killing guitarist Floyd Barton. Ruby, the young beauty on the run from man trouble down South who has shown up on her aunt Louise's doorstep, briefly takes Hedley as a lover to provide him with a son.

Hedley fast forwards to 1985, a bleak, violent time for the black underclass in America. King Hedly II, who was raised by Louise, is back home in Pittsburgh's dying Hill District after serving time for murder. King, whose wife Tonya is pregnant, feels trapped in a world of no opportunity; he is seething with anger and struggling to live up to a lifetime's worth of stories about his father, who wanted a son who could achieve greatness. Ruby has briefly returned to help bury Louise, but then her long-ago lover Elmore shows up and threatens to reveal a secret that could pull apart the already frayed family ties. All those connections sound a bit complicated and they are; but while the play stands up fine on its own, understanding how the past haunts the present is always a crucial part of understanding Wilson's work.

There's a disadvantage to knowing these links: when it is revealed in the play that the Bible-spouting soothsayer called Stool Pigeon is really Canewell, Floyd Barton's best friend, people who remember Seven Guitars might find it difficult to imagine that this is how he ended up. Of course, Wilson sometimes used wise fools like Stool Pigeon and Hedley as theatrical devices, failing to create real people and thus they are typically the weak link in his shows.

There's a downside to Sanders' effort to maintain momentum as well-after three hours of talking, the explosive ending feels somewhat underwritten but Sanders compounds that by having his actors rush through, making it feel anticlimactic, a weak echo of Seven Guitars' bloody climax.

But after that last scene fades away, the play resonates. The cast is generally superb, with Wilson veteran Stephen McKinley Henderson a particular delight as the sly but menacing Elmore. Cherise Boothe and Lynda Gravatt as Tonya and Ruby are also memorable, particularly in their monologues. Tonya's speech on why she wants to abort the baby because she can't trust King to stay out of jail and out of harm's way is heartbreaking. But the standout is propulsive Russell Hornsby as King, who brings a grittiness to his rage that was missing from Brian Stokes Mitchell in the original. Whether recalling the teacher who pigeonholed him as a future janitor or decrying his wife for wanting to deprive him of hoping for a future through their children, Hornsby as King perfectly captures Wilson at his finest.


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