Tackling a swarm of hidden demons

Review: In `King Hedley II,' six actors take a complex production and give it royal treatment.

March 09, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In his first scene in August Wilson's "King Hedley II," the title character uses a knife to stir up the rocky dirt outside his wreck of a rowhouse and plant a few seeds. Though his mother insists nothing will grow in this soil, and the flower bed gets accidentally trounced on, the plants sprout and continue to grow.

But as a three-centuries-old prophetess is quoted as saying: "Man can plant the seed, but only God can make it grow." And God has a score to settle in "King Hedley II."

The eighth installment in Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th-century African-American life, "Hedley" - playing a pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center - is the closest to Greek tragedy of any work in this impressive canon.

Except for its small cast of six, it's a big play in every respect - themes, length (3 hours, 40 minutes), characterizations and plot, especially the stunning wallop packed in the ending.

Set in the playwright's native Pittsburgh in 1985, "Hedley" is Wilson's first sequel. The action takes place 37 years after "Seven Guitars" and includes two characters from that play: Canewell, now called "Stool Pigeon," and Ruby, who was pregnant with King Hedley II in the earlier play.

King's true heritage is the crux of the new play, whose central issues have remained unresolved for four decades. The immediate events focus on King's efforts to support himself and his pregnant wife. Temporarily out of work, he's selling hot refrigerators with his friend, Mister (the son of a character in "Seven Guitars").

An ex-con, King remains disfigured by the ghastly scar given to him by the man he murdered. With his anger perpetually simmering, King fights his way through a world he's convinced is out to get him. Brian Stokes Mitchell recently assumed the role and has mastered a mountain of material, but he occasionally seems to be holding back. Judging from the fury Mitchell unleashed in his 1998 Tony-nominated role as "Ragtime's" Coalhouse Walker, mustering sufficient firepower probably won't be a lasting problem.

One of many grudges King bears is against his mother, Ruby (played by a spirited, unglamorized Leslie Uggams), who left him to be raised by his great aunt while Ruby pursued a singing career. Now the aunt's death has brought Ruby back into King's life, which becomes more complicated when one of Ruby's old beaus, a hustler named Elmore (slickly portrayed by Charles Brown), comes to town in hopes of renewing his courtship. Haunted by the secret of King's parentage, Elmore is determined to reveal it to him.

Like all of Wilson's plays, "Hedley" is peopled with philosophers. But these are philosophers with guns - a dangerous combination when debate gets heated.

The play bears another Wilson hallmark in Stool Pigeon, one the playwright's typical shaman-like characters. Played by Stephen McKinley Henderson as the neighborhood crank, Stool Pigeon spews biblical admonitions and stockpiles newspapers. The first trait reflects his belief in predetermination; the second, in the importance of understanding the past. These beliefs are overlooked by the other characters - to their peril.

Director Marion McClinton (an associate artist at Center Stage) gives Wilson's philosophizing folks the time and room to have their say. He capitalizes on the play's structure as a series of arias by adopting near-operatic staging that allows the characters to deliver their stories in a presentational, front-and-center manner.

Prior to Washington, "Hedley" has had five productions, several cast changes and much editing, some of which might still be re-thought. The difficulty isn't so much the length; indeed, the longer, second act feels swifter than the exposition-laden first. The problem lies in the choice of exposition; as it stands, the first act may leave theatergoers unfamiliar with "Seven Guitars" struggling to catch up.

"Hedley" is strikingly showcased on designer David Gallo's decaying urban set, which presents a row of crumbling houses, with the center house missing. Though the effect is that of a broken chain or a lost chapter in a book, the play tells the story of an unbroken chain of events, of people whose inability to comprehend their history dooms them to repeat it. It may not be a new lesson, but in Wilson's masterly hands, it is as urgent as it is powerful.

Play

What: `King Hedley II'

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Through March 25. Admission: $20-$68

Call: 800-444-1324

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