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Stage Review: Wilson's Hedley a thrilling ride

Thursday, December 16, 1999

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Bear down, buckle up and kick back -- there's a long, thrilling haul ahead.

  The newly opened, and elegant, O'Reilly Theater provides an ironic setting for its first play -- August Wilson's gritty "King Hedley II," with Tony Todd, above, in the title role. (Suellen Fitzsimmons)

That's advice on seeing "King Hedley II," August Wilson's craggy, thickly forested mountain of a tragedy now in its world premiere at the O'Reilly Theater, new home of the Pittsburgh Public Theater. But it's also true of Wilson's larger work, his Pittsburgh Cycle of plays spanning the 20th century. And it's true of Wilson, who should be entering the heart of his creative life.

"King Hedley" brings the completed stations on Wilson's epic 20th-century journey to eight and in so doing extends its complexity and power. This is his darkest play so far. A tragedy without the final uplift of "Fences" or "Jitney," it is grimmer even than "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which has more humor, or "Seven Guitars," which bookends tragedy with hopeful apotheosis.

Could the Public Theater have taken on a more daunting assignment? A new play is hard enough; a giant like "King Hedley" is harder still; dealing with the glitches of a new theater must double every difficulty.

For the audience, the O'Reilly is an elegant, welcoming space. But it makes an ironic setting for the gritty "King Hedley." David Gallo's set portrays a row of ramshackle Hill District houses without any concession to sentiment. Donald Holder's gorgeous lighting paints striking pictures, Toni-Leslie James dramatizes character through costumes and music wraps all in a mythic frame.

Though large and filling, "King Hedley" is not finished. It will develop surer rhythms as this run continues, and its text will get further refining in productions to come. But Pittsburgh has it now with all its rough-hewn majesty.

In spite of some robust humor, its essential darkness, length (3 1/2 hours including intermission) and incremental development will make it hard going for some. Others will remember that "Long Day's Journey into Night" is no picnic, either, or "King Lear." These are the company "King Hedley" keeps, all centered on the search for identity, responsibility and guilt in the most painful place -- the family. But if you were going to prep for "King Hedley," you'd do best to re-read the Biblical story of Abraham, Isaac and the vengeful God of the Old Testament.

The God of "King Hedley" is one grim patriarch. The unbalanced Stool Pigeon admiringly calls him by a foul name that sounds sacrilegious, but how else to make sense of a world in which survival is hard and the killing has started claiming children?
    Stage Review: "King Hedley II"

Where: O'Reilly Theater, 621Penn Ave., Downtown

When: Through Jan. 15 -- 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays(except 7 p.m. Jan. 4); 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; also 8 p.m. Dec. 20;also 2 p.m. Jan. 6, 8 and 15;no performances Dec. 24, 25 or 31.

Tickets: $15 to $42,students $10; 412-321-9800.

For more background, visit PG Online's special package on playwright August Wilson and the new O'Reilly Theater.


"King Hedley" takes place in 1985, which partly explains its bite: There is no historic distance to drape this story with nostalgia.

The action is the struggle to survive and achieve manhood on a daily battlefield. What may seem like criminality or crackpot superstition isn't so inexplicable when seen as a response to the tortured history of black America.

In a scruffy Hill backyard we meet King and Mister, friends hustling a buck selling refrigerators. King's new wife, Tonya, has an office job, an angry teen-age daughter and a baby on the way. Sharing King's house is his selfish but charming mother, Ruby; then Elmore arrives, the stylish gambler from her past. Next door lives Stool Pigeon, the local shaman who hoards newspapers in an attempt to capture history.

Ironically, none of the characters knows that the play's subcutaneous theme is the search for parentage. King thinks his father was Hedley, the West Indian apocalyptic prophet we met in "Seven Guitars." But his father was really either Leroy or Elmore, the two men who once fought over Ruby's favors. Early in "King Hedley" this is made clear, along with more than a hint as to which it was.

The play has the size suggested by its Shakespearean title. It's partly a joke -- Ruby named her son King for the same reason Red Carter named his son Mister ("so the white man have to call him Mister"). But the themes are those of Shakespeare's histories: inheritance, power and the relation of the family to the larger society.

The action takes place on a poor patch of dirt but, as King says, "This the only dirt I got. This is me, right here." So he plants his seed -- literally (twice over) and figuratively. Gradually the dusty ground becomes the arena for issues of love and honor, a place of primal ritual with all the reverberations of the palace yards where Greek chieftains settled blood feuds in the aftermath of the Trojan War.

There's plenty of blood. Elmore and King have done time for killings, justified in their eyes, mesmerizingly described. King grieves his first wife, Neesie. We follow news of a woman avenging the shooting of her child. There's Shakespearean size, too, in the monologues, nearly two dozen great monoliths of talk in which Elmore and King, especially, search past and present for pattern.

The past is always present. Three times King goes back to the third grade for telling anecdotes. Or take Aunt Esther, the ancient fortune teller who is heard of in other Wilson plays. When she dies, Stool Pigeon says she's 366 years old. You have to figure it out for yourself, but this takes her back to 1619, the year the first shipment of African slaves arrived in the Virginia colony. The Houses of Atreus, York and Lancaster have nothing on black America.

Non-Shakespearean is the smallness of the cast, which places an increased burden on each actor. They achieve Herculean effects.

As King, Tony Todd is an explosive giant. But in his long, careful hands, his wary eyes and the plaintive tilt to his neck, you see sensitivity and pain. His antagonist is Charles Brown's masterful Elmore, a stout fashion plate all the more steely for his dapper surface. Brown's long monologues have the heft and shape of sculpture.

Mel Winkler's Stool Pigeon grows on you as you catch the keening passion beneath his eccentricity, and Russell Andrews' decent, feckless Mister provides rich comic accompaniment without a fleck of caricature.

Though engaging, Ruby is no true mother, as King says several times. (They never touch until the climactic scene.) Marlene Warfield realizes Ruby's charm easily; her few shaky moments may be due to Ruby's superficiality. Ella Joyce gives Tonya so much sexy, soulful appeal we wish her role were bigger.

As midwife for this massive new tragedy, Marion Isaac McClinton has used orchestrating skills beyond those of the usual director. Who knows how close he and Wilson have come to their goal, but they have given us dramatic food for repeated viewings.

"King Hedley" makes explicit the religious underpinning of Wilson's work, where each play is a station of agony or reflection on a passionate journey toward an uncertain future. But for all its tragic sacrifice, "King Hedley" suggests some hope. "You got the key to the mountain!" Stool Pigeon tells King as, in the grip of the final catastrophe, King seems to end the cycle of blood with a ritual gesture of peace. But history and that implacable God can't be so easily answered.

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