Two Rivers Theater production is a gripping play
Playwright August Wilson (1945-2005) created an amazing ten-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century, each play representing a different decade. Nine of the plays are set in the same neighborhood, the Hill District in Pittsburgh, where Wilson grew up. King Hedley II, set in 1985, is the eighth play written in the cycle. Utilizing characters from Wilson’s earlier play Seven Guitars, it tells a powerful story of long-held secrets, hopes of redemption, and the creation of a legacy. As presented in the intimate Marion Hubner Theatre at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, it is a gripping play, well worth seeing.
King Hedley II (Blake Morris), recently released from prison, is living in his late mother’s house with his visiting cousin Ruby (Elain Graham), next door to Stool Pigeon (Brian D. Coats), an oracular figure who appears to be brain-damaged. King plans to buy a video store with his best friend Mister (Charlie Hudson III) and is trying to get back into the good graces of Tonya (Brittany Bellizeare) who has doubts about continuing to bear his child. Re-entering Ruby’s life is Elmore (Harvy Blanks), a rejected suitor from her past, a con man, cheat, and troublemaker who threatens to reveal a secret about King’s heritage.
A challenge that any production of King Hedley II has is how to address characters and situations from prior Wilson plays.
Two River Theatre provides a synopsis in the program of Seven Guitars, set in 1948 and featuring Ruby, Stool Pigeon, King’s parents Louise and Hedley, and Mister’s father Red. This allows the audience to better grasp the relationships between Ruby, Elmore, and Stool Pigeon, and to a lesser extent King and Mister. Without this synopsis a portion of the play’s power would have been lost, with the audience’s focus weakened trying to figure out the past events that bind these people. The play is better in letting the audience know about 366-year-old Aunt Ester, a character who never appears but is often mentioned in King Hedley II, whose presence is felt through many of the plays in Wilson’s cycle.
Director Brandon J. Dirden was last seen on stage at Two River in A Raisin in the Sun and directed Two River’s production of Seven Guitars three seasons ago. He uses the intimacy of Two River’s smaller Hubner Theatre to draw the audience into a more intimate embrace with this play than might have been possible in a larger venue. From his cast he draws performances of such power that the climax of the play is completely unexpected yet absolutely plausible. As for Two River’s technical team, their particular talents — Michael Carnahan’s stark design of a backyard alley behind two run-down houses, Kathy A. Perkins’ lighting, Kay Richardson’s sound, and Karen Perry’s costumes — blend to create a true-to-life depiction of lower-class Pittsburgh.
Two River Theatre has now reached the halfway point in their commitment to presenting all ten plays in August Wilson’s American Cycle. If King Hedley II is a portent of things to come, this commitment promises to create noteworthy combinations of overlooked American history and penetrating drama. The serious theatre-goer needs to make the trip to Red Bank to experience this production.