LET'S BE DIRECT: August Wilson's new play, King Hedley II, is three and a half hours long, with one intermission. While it might be tempting to bury that piece of information deep within a discussion of the play's themes, the outstanding performances of the cast, the superlative set design of David Gallo, and the detailed direction of longtime Wilson collaborator Marion Isaac McClinton, to do so would be to overlook how the playwright sabotages his own intentions. The producers of this play, by indulging Wilson's sometimes rich but often simply excessive language, have allowed a fine but lean work to be virtually smothered under its own weight.
King Hedley II
Seattle Repertory Theater till April 8
King Hedley II is part of Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle, the grand design of which is to examine, decade by decade, a particular community of African-Americans living in the city's Hill District in the 20th century and, by extension, the changing nature of a People's relation to this country. This play, set in 1985, is a sequel of sorts to Wilson's earlier Seven Guitars, which was set in 1948 and featured several of these characters in significantly younger incarnations, as well as Hedley "the First," a sad character driven half-crazy by his failed dreams. In marked contrast, Hedley II is possessed of an active and energized nature, though one marked by violence. As portrayed by Tony Todd, he's a semi-reformed criminal with the muscular build of a prizefighter and a cruel crescent of a facial scar. It's intriguing then, given his fearsome visage, that his first action at the beginning of the play is hopeful, even tender, as he sprinkles a packet of store-bought seeds into a patch of dirt outside his crumbling tenement house.
Hedley and his friend Mister (Russell Andrews) have a scheme selling refrigerators that they suspect may be stolen. While it's just another scam for Mister, Hedley, whose wife Tonya (Ella Joyce) is pregnant, has dreams of investing his savings in a video store. Yet it's not just life in a ghetto that sets barriers to his dreams of being a reputable businessman; it's his own rage, which threatens to explode at such trivial moments as when he's unable to retrieve some developed photos because he lacks a receipt. In an environment where guns are traded between neighbors as casually as garden tools, violence and crime are too readily available as alternatives.
Hedley's career as a salesman is further undermined by the arrival of Elmore (Charles Brown), a smooth-talking gambler who's had a long-standing love affair with Hedley's mother Ruby (Marlene Warfield). Elmore's careful parsing of morality is both attractive and a challenge to Hedley; eventually we learn that more links the two men than their violent pasts.
Director McClinton has done a fine job working with the actors on listening, which is a good thing, since they do a lot of it in this play. Practically every character has a lengthy monologue or two to deliver. Wilson repeatedly applies the brakes to his own social analysis of the 1980s so that characters can talk about their pasts, sometimes providing revelations but just as often leading us into seemingly pointless narrative tangents. For a group bonded by family ties and lifelong friendships, these people seem bizarrely uninformed about each other. The Bible-spouting Stool Pigeon (Mel Winkler)—yet another of Wilson's half-crazy visionary characters—adds little except a heavy-handed underscoring to the play's central themes.
If Wilson could face up to some extensive editing and employ a lighter touch with his more resonant themes (before the play is over that seeded patch of dirt has been discussed, rolled in, and surrounded by barbed wire, as well as hosted a to-the-death craps game), he'd not only have a shorter play but one truly deserving of the first-rate production it receives from its director and cast.