“King Hedley II” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz
In these days of short attention spans, when the “ideal play” is described as being 70 minutes with no intermission, the very idea of a three-hour evening in the theatre is enough to make some audiences cringe. “How will I stay awake that long? How can anything be interesting for three hours?!?”
Well, if the play is by the great August Wilson, and is in the hands of a group of superlative actors working under an assured director, it can be interesting and then some. In Michele Shay’s production of King Hedley II at the Matrix Theatre, the three hours fly by.
Mr. Wilson, who died in 2005, was best known for “The Pittsburgh Cycle” – 10 plays about the African-American experience throughout the twentieth century, of which King Hedley II is one. He wrote with specificity, not only of place (with the exception of one of the plays, the Hill District of Pittsburgh) and time (each play takes place in a different decade), but also of language. Characters erupt in geysers of words: they use language to caress, to cajole, to threaten, and to punish. While there are cascades of words in each of Mr. Wilson’s plays, none are extraneous, and every one of them takes aim straight at the minds and hearts of the audience.
In 1985 Pittsburgh, King Hedley II (Esau Pritchett) is a 30-something petty thief, back home living with his mother Ruth (Ella Joyce) after seven years in prison for killing the man who cut him with a razor – the vivid scar still bisects his face. King and his pal Mister (Jon Chaffin) dream of opening a video store, and are selling probably-stolen refrigerators to get together the necessary cash, and when that doesn’t seem to be producing enough, they rob a local business to hurry things along.
On the domestic side, 35-year-old Tonya (Ciera Payton) is pregnant with King’s child, which produces tension between the couple: King wants the baby, but Tonya – having already had a child at 17 who had to be brought up without a father, is determined to have an abortion. And Elmore (Montae Russell), an old flame of Ruby’s who has a tendency to disappear from her life at odd moments, shows up again, this time asking her to marry him.
Looking on, and often commenting, is Ruby’s next-door neighbor, Stool Pigeon (Adolphus Ward), an ancient eccentric whose house – and front porch – are piled high with old newspapers, and who seems at times to have a direct line to the Almighty.
Described as one of Mr. Wilson’s darkest plays, King Hedley II indeed ends tragically – in a manner echoing the ancient Greeks in its irony – but there are plenty of laughs along the way, and the cast takes full advantage of both the laughter and the tears.
All the actors are splendid. Mr. Pritchett is a striking figure, tall, with a shaved head and burning eyes, looking as if he could break in half anyone who angered him. And yet there’s a vulnerability to King, almost an innocence, and Mr. Pritchett’s ability to convey this makes us – perversely yet inevitably – root for him even at his most despicable.
Mr. Chaffin quietly plays second-fiddle to King, going along even when he knows what’s about to happen could be a disaster; Mister’s wife has left and taken the furniture, and Mr. Chaffin deftly conveys the desperation of a grown man reduced to sleeping on the floor.
As a woman torn between her love for her man, and her refusal to be beholden to him, Ms Payton shows us someone determined not to fall into the same trap she succumbed to years ago – but lets us see at the same time how difficult the decision is.
As a sometime-doddering, sometimes-forceful presence which suggests a Greek chorus, Mr. Ward is by turns chilling and hilarious. His repeated description of God – “a bad motherf**ker” – brings laughs throughout the evening.
But perhaps the biggest laugh of the night is earned by Ms Joyce, as she nonchalantly tosses off a line late in the play about performing a sex act and the “need to do it again.” The actress, who originated the role of Tonya in the world premiere of the play some years ago, moves into the role of Ruby with grace and a fierce dignity: whether going for laughs, or living through the worst nightmare a mother can face, there isn’t a false note in Ms Joyce’s performance – she’s simply magnificent.
Ms Shay – who was nominated for a Tony for her performance in Mr. Wilson’s Seven Guitars – directs with a firm but nuanced hand. She keeps the pace crackling, and draws expertly layered performances from the cast.
John Iacovelli’s detailed set puts us – literally – in the hardscrabble dirt the characters must surmount, while Derek Jones’s lighting, Mylette Nora’s costumes, and Kevin Novinsky’s sound make valuable contributions.
My only quibble is the way the evening begins: as the audience sits facing a fully-lit set, a piece of music plays, loudly. Presumably it’s meant to set the scene, but (to me anyway) the lyrics were incomprehensible, and the piece lasts a full five minutes. It was an inauspicious way to start.
Thankfully, once the actors entered, all was well. King Hedley II is a powerful play, stunningly acted and well-directed. Go ahead and spend three hours with these characters – you won’t regret it.
King Hedley II
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