Monday, December 10, 2012

King Hedley II - Portland Playhouse - Portland, OR

"The Rhythms of Life"

This play is written by August Wilson and directed by Jade King Carroll.  It runs through December 30th.  The theatre is located 602 NE Prescott St. in North Portland.  For ticket and season information call 503-488-5822 or visit them at

The late, great playwright, August Wilson, wrote a 10-cycle play series about the black experience from the 1900’s though the 1990’s in the Hill District of Pittsburgh,  PA, where he grew up.  Recently ART did a prequel of this story, Seven Guitars, with a couple of the same  cast members.  (Read my review of that show on this blog.)

At the center of the story is King Hedley II (OSF actor, Peter Macon), a ticking time bomb, dissatisfied with his lot in life.  He is looking, if not for easy money, at least a fair shake, unhampered by race issues.  He has a willing accomplice and supporter of anything he does from Mister (Vin Shambry, son of Red from Seven Guitars).  Meanwhile his wife, Tonya (Ramona Lisa Alexander—from Seven Guitars) has a job and wants a family and a “normal” way of life.

They are living with the woman who raised Hedley, Ruby (Monica Parks), who has her  own desires and secrets.  Next door lives Stool Pigeon (Victor Mack, playing an older version of the same character he was in Seven Guitars).  He spouts Bible quotes, collects newspapers for his view of the world and, with all his eccentricities, may be the most aware person of them all.

Into this explosive mix arrives Elmore (John Cothran, Jr.), a con man and an old flame of Rudy’s.  His intrusion into their precarious lives, upsets the delicate balance and sets off a chain of events that will, ultimately, end in tragedy.  To tell more of the story would expose parts of it best left to the discovery of the audience.

The direction by Ms. Carroll keeps the energy and flow of the story moving at a brisk space, although three hours long, it is never boring.  Her connection with the actors in the show is obvious, as every look and nuance of theirs has meaning.  And the Scenic Design by Owen Walz is terrific.  You literally feel you have been transported in time and space to the poorer section of a large city in the 80’s.

The whole cast is electric!  I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing those roles.  They actually inhabit them, as any trained professional actor would.  Mr. Macon, as Hedley, is a powerhouse, a force of Nature to be reckoned with, driving his character and the story to its  inevitable conclusion.  Mr. Mack is fascinating to watch, as his character tries to balance  Bible teachings with the harsh realities of the “real” world, a continuation of  his character, Canewell, in Seven Guitars.

Mr. Cothran, Jr. is a master.  His monologues set up much of the history of the story and one is rapt when he waxes eloquent on them.  And Ms. Parks does equally well with her reminisces of a world gone by and a life never realized.   Mr. Shambry and Ms. Alexander round out this powerful cast, filling in solid support for the sad but powerful structure of this tale.

An overall theme of Mr. Wilson’s about the world may be echoed in Stool Pigeon’s words, “Ain’t gotta believe in it for it to be true.”  And, possibly, from Ruby, about men, “…talks like sugar but gives salt.”

But it’s also about Birth, Death, and Re-birth.  As proof, the seeds that Hedley plants to grow flowers; the kitten that is buried in the garden, with the understanding that it will be re-born; the death of one of the characters in the story, with a baby on the way to fill this void; and Bible quotes throughout to the Cycle’s continuation.  (Similar instances are in Seven Guitars.)  The world may be “too much with us,” but with us, it is, like it or not, for better or  worse.

Interesting to note that Wilson’s Two Trains Running will be playing at OSF this Spring.  The third of his plays performed in Oregon within a year.  Good to hear, as it’s well deserved.  If you choose to see this play, tell them Dennis sent you.


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