Playwright: August Wilson
At: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets: courttheatre.org 773-753-4472; $37.50-$74. Runs through: Oct. 13
The sheer scope and volume of August Wilson's American Century Cycle conjures visions of stately grandeur befitting treasures of antiquity, but while Chicago theaters have proven themselves adept at conveying scope despite restrictions of time, space and budgets, the textual volume accumulated by a saga encompassing ten full-length play chronicling multiple generations is not always as malleable.
If the cycle can be viewed as a Dickensian novel, then the chief antecedent to the events encountered in this, its eighth chapter, are the group of would-be jazz musicians first introduced in the 1940s-set Seven Guitarsamong them, the doomed visionary King Hedley, whose namesake lends our play its title. The year is now 1985, however, and the conversation of the once-hopeful surviving comrades reduced to a litany of lamentations for friends and neighbors lost to recessionary economics, ghetto commerce and trivial slights ending in duels to the deathdevastation evidenced by the ubiquity of second marriages, absent surnames, and undertakers whose telephone numbers are always busy.
The expository information required to acquaint us with the inhabitants, both seen and unseen, of this landscape would alone make for leisurely perusal, but in this episode, more than in any other, Wilson frames his narrative in elements of classical tragedy: a solo-choral prologue addressed to the audience by self-styled apocalyptic oracle Canewellnow dubbed "stool pigeon" by his peers ( more exposition )quickly followed by the news that the community matriarch, alleged to be 366 years old, has died. The consequences of this announcement will lead to revelations surrounding the lineage of our protagonist, metaphorical manifestations spurring the unwary to hubristic recklessness, soliloquies and stichomythia of stirring eloquence, and the appearance of lethal weaponsall boding ill for everyone involved, and stretching the performance time to a staggering three hours.
Fortunately, director Ron OJ Parson's six-member cast arrives well-equipped with the verbal, as well as physical, stamina to maintain the necessary level of suspense for the duration, deftly navigating abrupt tonal changes and long, contemplative, often inevitably disruptive, monologues with minimal evidence of fatigue. Likewise contributing to the ambience of a world fraught with ominous portent is a technical team endowing every detail of the dramatic environment with hidden meaning, from the vivid hues of the women's clothing, to the harsh light from upstairs windows, to a thunderstorm whose cold wind you can feel sweep through the auditorium.