In 1962, the fledgling Theater West preemed an adaptation of the most famous published work of American poet Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950). That production was conceived by the late company co-founder Charles Aidman and featured original songs by Aidman and Naomi Caryl; it starred Aidman, Betty Garrett, Joyce Van Patten and Robert Elston, and went on to a successful Broadway run in 1963. Garrett, Van Patten and Caryl have united to helm a 40th anniversary revival of Masters’ dark but often humorous dissection of life and death in one small Illinois town, performed with impressive facility by Drew Katzman, Bridget Hanley, Abbott Alexander and Mary Linda Phillips (subbing for Lee Meriwether). This sojourn through 19th century Americana is enhanced by the musical contributions of singer-guitarist Jane George and singer-guitarist-cellist Andy Taylor.
Published in 1915, Masters’ collection of 244 free-verse poems delves beneath the surface of small-town Midwest civility to expose the foibles and passions of its townsfolk. The short monologues are voiced by the ghosts of the deceased, who reveal the secret truths they dared not reveal during their days on earth. Garrett and Van Patten remain faithful to Aidman’s original staging, wherein the four seated actors move forward into their varied characterizations, segueing fluidly from tale to tale and then retreating back into semi-darkness.
Not all the revelations of these deceased Spoon River citizens are noteworthy, but even the simplest utterings are handled with commitment and vitality by the four-member ensemble.
Katzman, Hanley, Alexander and Phillips inhabit their many portrayals, detailing the individual personalities of the 60-plus characters with few props and accessories. Katzman captures best the reedy vocal twang of these Illinois folk. His varied characters include a sardonic card sharp, a decidedly unhappy husband, a height-deprived judge who wreaks havoc on the lanky defendants who come before him, an embittered soldier and a life-wearied blacksmith, among many.
Hanley exhibits an impressive emotional range as she burrows into the psyches of a wide assortment of wives, mothers other ladies ranging from the chaste to the profane. She is particularly haunting in her portrayal of a young woman who carried the stigma of having been raped as a child through all the brief years of her life.
One of the more detailed performances is Phillips’ chronicle of the odyssey of aged Hanna Armstrong, friend of Abe Lincoln from his Illinois days, who travels to Washington during the Civil War to plead with the president to release her sickly son from his duties as a Union soldier. In the second act, she joins Hanley as two hilariously boozed-up town ladies wax poetic on the foibles of men.
Alexander portrays a series of pompous officials and other opinionated folk. Among his memorable characters are a staunch prohibitionist who admits to being a secret tippler who died of cirrhosis of the liver, and the village atheist who might have been the most religious man in town.
The musical contributions of Taylor and George certainly add authenticity to the proceedings. Such ballads as “Soldier Oh Soldier,” “Water Is Wide,” “3 Nights Drunk” and “I Am, I Am” evoke the heartfelt musical simplicity of the period.