The setup: Of all contemporary American playwrights, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winner August Wilson, who died in 2005, is perhaps the most old-fashioned. Which is a splendid thing.
He loves the well-constructed play, dropping character hints and scene tidbits along the way that will pay off big time by the end of his dramas. He loves words, bejeweling his plays with stately, emotional outbursts that bespeak poetry and the wonders of American speech. His characters are vividly alive, emotionally direct and, usually, say just what they mean. He fills his plays with religious fervor, a throwback to ancient ancestors' abiding influence, good and bad.
His epic work, the ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle," which documents a century of black American experience, is a monumental artistic achievement. No other playwright has ever constructed such a self-contained world -- the blighted, ever-hopeful Hill district in Pittsburgh -- that also contains everywhere else. No other playwright illuminates in such fine detail and sheer beauty a people's daydreams, terrors and aspirations that speak so forcefully and heartfelt to everyone else. He illuminates the black experience, but shows all of us the world.
King Hedley II, the ninth in the epic series, takes place in the Hill district of Pittsburgh in 1985, with one of the characters from the '40s play, Seven Guitars, taking center stage and coming into fruition. You don't have to know that former play to understand what's happening; the characters will tell you their history, a defining Wilson trait.
King (Benjamin Cain), fresh from the slammer, has returned to his mother's house to start life afresh, planting seeds in the front yard to drive home that point, but getting fast money by selling hot refrigerators. Mom Ruby (Bebe Wilson), who gave up King to her sister to raise so she could pursue her singing career, which later went bust, has a prickly relationship with him, as does his wife Tonya (Rachel Hemphill Dickson), the prototypical strong, independent Wilson female. Tonya is pregnant but doesn't want another child to raise in this teetering environment, one in which King will likely land back in jail and she'll have to raise their child alone. She won't have that.
Next door in the dilapidated neighborhood (wondrously realized in scenic designer James V. Thomas's evocatively decayed houses of faux-brick paper siding and trees shorn of their leaves) lives Stool Pigeon (Wayne DeHart), Wilson's Jeremiah figure, prophet of God's wrath and all-knowingness. He's the characters' link to their rich, history-laden past, evoking the mystery and mysticism that lead them onward. "God's a mean mother-fucker," he preaches with profane Biblical profundity.
King's homeboy is Mister (Broderick "Brod J" Jones), a hyperkinetic Artful Dodger who quickly acquiesces to King's plan to knock off a jewelry store. Into this rich stew strolls quick-talking, no-count Elmore (Wilbert Williams), Ruby's former lover who easily sweeps her off her feet again. He and King have been at odds for years, and Elmore knows a secret about Hedley's parentage that, you can be sure, will be revealed with devastating consequences.
Melodramatic and sprawling, King Hedley II is the most operatic of Wilson's cycle plays. Each character gets a center-stage aria of some remembered hurt or some unrealized dream that went horribly wrong. Tonya's description of a mother's pain from a dead child is deeply felt and raw. There's not a noise to be heard throughout the theater as she spins her tale.
Dickson takes the breath right out of us. Ruby's story of her hair turning grey in front of her eyes is masterfully related by Ms. Wilson, as are any of DeHart's fervid outbursts. This cagey pro knows just how to deliver a character. Our eyes never leave him, even when he's just sitting on the porch eating soup and listening to others spin their tales. These descriptive scenes almost cry out for music. We can imagine Verdi lapping it up.
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The play is long and involved, with a few too many scenes repeating themes already better stated, but the performers are so enrapt in the telling that we forgive Wilson his excesses. His mistakes are usually better than any other playwright's successes.
Theatrical talent runs deep at the Ensemble, onstage and backstage, and Wilson's magnificent panorama, directed with panache by Eileen J. Morris and presented with vivid atmospheric gloss, is mounted with respect and unfailing dramatic instinct. Replete with pain, hope, myth, courage, strength and failure, Wilson's drama is all-human.
Hedley shows us the best and worst that we can be, and the best and worst of what can happen to us. Like all great humanists, though, even when showing us Hedley's dire ending, Wilson leaves us with that dead cat's cry that's rife with symbolism: Either the dead have indeed returned or there's a new life out there crying in the dark, waiting to tell its story. We sit mesmerized at the thought.
August Wilson's drama set in 1985 Pittsburgh runs through June 3 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. Purchase tickets online at the theater's Web site or call 713-520-0055. $18-$27.