nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 21, 2006
Signature Theatre Company's revival of August Wilson's Seven Guitars is in every way a triumph. Under the strong directorial hand of Ruben Santiago-Hudson (who was one of the stars of the original New York production of this play, ten years ago), this powerful story is thrillingly and gracefully told. And thanks to the atmospheric production design and the rich, authentic performances of the expert cast, the remarkable subtext of Wilson's work—the contours of African American life, sixty-odd years ago and today—are conveyed thoughtfully and carefully. It's great drama and great theatre: genuine American tragedy, in fact; and at a $15 ticket price, it's one of our city's greatest bargains as well. This show truly is not to be missed.
Seven Guitars takes place in Pittsburgh in 1948, in the Hill District that's the locale of most of Wilson's history plays. We're in the backyard—such as it is—of a modest two-story house that's been divided into apartments. The occupants are Vera, a young woman who is trying to move on after an unsatisfactory romance with a guitar player named Floyd; Louise, in her late 40s, a busy-body hairdresser whose husband left her more than a decade ago and who now, though she'd never admit it, is ready for a replacement; and Hedley, nearly 60, a powerful though seemingly slow man, obsessed by memories of his father and notions of black superiority over the white man.
Floyd returns after a 90-day stint in the workhouse. Before his incarceration, he was in Chicago, where he recorded a song that has since become a pretty solid hit. He's ready to go back to the studio (and he has a bona fide offer in hand to do just that); he's ready to finally get a piece of the American pie that's been denied him and his family and his race for all too long. He wants Vera to be with him when he claims it.
Floyd's bandmates, Red Carter (drums; a dapper, middle-aged ladies' man, with—oh yes—a wife and kids at home) and Canewell (harmonica; a slick ne'er-do-well with no fixed address and, to hear him tell it, more girls than he can handle), also converge here. Their discussions turn on whether they'll go with Floyd to Chicago, whether they've been treated fairly (they're quick to remind Floyd that while they all made the record, only Floyd's name is on the disc), and—significantly—whether Floyd's white manager Mr. T.L. Hall will front them money to get their instruments out of hock. Louise's beautiful niece Ruby arrives from Alabama, having fled an ugly situation involving one suitor who has killed another suitor. Hedley talks about how the Bible has prophesied black dominance over whites, and everybody gathers around the radio to listen to Joe Louis go for the boxing championship. History and recrimination and jive and glorious song and dance pass the days and nights. And then, suddenly, Floyd's manager gets into some trouble, and this small, angry, insular world starts to implode.
Wilson balances a taut, compelling throughline about Floyd's struggle to get back to Chicago with rich and revelatory detail that helps us understand who all these people are and, vividly, what it might have been like to have lived as they did, the boundaries of their lives constricted by racist institutions far outside their control. Wilson's genius here is to make the theme of injustice the backdrop of his play rather than its hook; it's always just beneath the surface or just behind everything that happens in Seven Guitars, but it's subtle, insidious, taken for granted.
Signature Theatre Company has taken immense care in putting this production together. Richard Hoover's set feels authentic and lived-in, Karen Perry's costumes are true to the period and to the characters (including being well-representative of each person's economic situation), Jane Cox's lighting design is appropriately naturalistic and evocative, and Bill Sims, Jr.'s music and Darron L. West's sound design contribute mightily to the ambiance of the piece. Ken Roberson has contributed some lively choreography that provides wondrous bursts of joy within the generally starved atmosphere, and Rick Sordelet's fight sequences are exciting and convincing.
Lance Reddick looks and moves exactly right as Floyd, but he doesn't seem to have found his way into the role just yet (he probably will, with time); there's still a tentativeness, especially in Floyd's big character-defining second-act monologue, that tells on him. But the other six members of this cast are superlative. Kevin Carroll, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Charles Weldon (as Canewell, Red Carter, and Hedley, respectively) each inhabit their complex and conflicted characters with astonishing precision, bringing clarity and purpose to every beat of their performances. Cassandra Freeman (Ruby), Brenda Pressley (Louise), and Roslyn Ruff (Vera) match them with deeply-felt portrayals of women who live hard and work hard, drowning their troubles in perpetual motion (chattering or otherwise), taking great solace in a moment of gentle relaxation or heartfelt song.
Seven Guitars is awesomely potent; it's a privilege to see this first-rate contemporary American play in such an admirably first-class production. This is theatre at its best—the kind that lets us laugh one minute and cry the next, that moves us ineffably toward a stronger understanding of what it means to be human, and in particular the disaster of slavery and racism that so many of our forefathers wrought on so many others'.