Review: ‘Seven Guitars’

What was growing increasingly apparent in some of August Wilson's recent works is clearly evident in his newest, "Seven Guitars." One of America's most gifted playwrights needs a good editor.

What was growing increasingly apparent in some of August Wilson’s recent works is clearly evident in his newest, “Seven Guitars.” One of America’s most gifted playwrights needs a good editor.

Though Wilson’s writing is often poetic, occasionally funny and always eloquent in an earthy way that displays a keen feeling for the beauty and power of African-American argot, “Seven Guitars” ultimately bogs down in too much extraneous talk that impedes the plot and makes the play seem longer and less focused than it should be.

Set in the back yard of a Pittsburgh tenement in 1948, “Seven Guitars” tells the story of Floyd Barton (Jerome Preston Bates), a blues guitarist who believes he is on the verge of fame and fortune after having cut his first hit song. Flush with the thrill of success, Barton has come to the home of his girlfriend, Vera (Viola Davis), to ask her to go with him to Chicago, where he plans to record his first album with his buddies and fellow blues players Canewell (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and Red Carter (Tommy Hollis). But despite deep feelings for Burton, Vera is reluctant because she doubts he can remain faithful to her.

Wilson also introduces a rather melodramatic subplot involving Vera’s neighbor Hedley (Albert Hall), who is dying of tuberculosis. Hedley wants to father a child before he dies. Near the end of act one, the arrival of the voluptuous Ruby (Rosalyn Coleman), the niece of Louise (Michele Shay), another of Vera’s neighbors, provides what appears to be an unexpected opportunity for Hedley to fulfill his wish.

Though Wilson presents the intriguing threads of a plot early on, “Seven Guitars” stops dead in its tracks about halfway through the first act, when the men gather in Vera’s back yard for what amounts to a lengthy gabfest about a multitude of topics ranging from blues music to guns and knives, strange medicinal plants and moonshine. Much of the talk is certainly entertaining, but none of it really furthers the story Wilson has to tell.

In act two, the plot suddenly kicks back into gear with news that Barton’s chief financial backer has been arrested, thereby putting the guitarist’s Chicago recording plans in jeopardy. Barton turns to unsavory means to finance his dream, a move that eventually leads to his death just as Vera has finally agreed to go with him to Chicago. But Barton’s demise is robbed of much of its dramatic power because Wilson hasn’t sufficiently developed the character over the course of the three-hour play.

“Seven Guitars” could benefit from cutting out much of the free-roaming talk in act one and replacing it with material that more effectively and concisely fleshes out Barton — his rocky relationship with Vera and his passion for blues music.

Director Walter Dallas stepped in when Wilson regular Lloyd Richards had to bow out for health reasons. Despite the script’s problems, the production flows smoothly and nicely captures the real strengths of Wilson’s writing as it is delivered by an ensemble that includes several fine performances. Davis, in particular, strikes an affectingly sweet note as Vera, and Hollis displays superb comic timing in the part of the drummer Red Carter.

Hall is a genuinely eerie Hedley, and Shay and Santiago-Hudson bring bite to their roles. But Bates’ portrayal of Floyd Barton is a little too flat, and Coleman, as Ruby, relies too much on bumps and grinds.

Scott Bradley has designed a single finely detailed backyard garden set. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting leans too heavily on yellowish tints, but Constanza Romero’s period costumes are right on the mark.

Seven Guitars

Goodman Theater, Chicago; 683 seats; $38 top

Production

A Goodman Theater presentation of a play in two acts by August Wilson. Directed by Walter Dallas.

Creative

Sets, Scott Bradley; costumes, Constanza Romero; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Tom Clark; musical direction; Dwight Andrews; dramaturg, Tom Creamer; production stage manager, T. Paul Lynch. Artistic director, Robert Falls; managing director, Roche Schulfer. Opened Jan. 23, 1995. Reviewed Jan. 25. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast

Louise - Michele Shay
Canewell - Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Red Carter - Tommy Hollis
Vera - Viola Davis
Hedley - Albert Hall
Floyd Barton - Jerome Preston Bates
Ruby - Rosalyn Coleman
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