Regardless of how fine a production it receives, “King Hedley II” will always remain one of the lesser works in the August Wilson canon, a shadow of its glittering companion piece, “Seven Guitars.” That said, within the ambitious context of Signature Theater’s retrospective season of Wilson plays, Derrick Sanders’ production is a laudable piece of work, gorgeously acted and deeply felt by a tight ensemble of thesps who know their way around the inner landscape of characters that have grown to haunt us over the years.
First, a quibble: Even by the sad standards of inner-city neighborhoods during the cheerless 1980s, the stage design for a shared back yard in Pittsburgh’s Hill District seems excessively depressing. The row houses in David Gallo’s set are not in a state of decay; they have tumbled into complete decrepitude. The ground is so barren, it can’t even support a crop of stones.
The characters have it hard enough without this visual overstatement of hopeless despair. In his unsparing vision of their lives, Wilson uses physical desolation to convey the sense of social abandonment that left people in neighborhoods like this one entirely on their own. With no industry, no employment and no family and community support structures to keep some semblance of civilized order in their lives, people survive by re-ordering themselves into a criminal culture.
Everybody in this play, including the women, packs a gun — with a knife for backup. With his uncanny eye for the rituals (and the ritualistic language) of urban tribalism, Wilson works this gun- and knife-play into scenes of savage humor.
In this environment, anyone enterprising enough to look for work thinks of employment in terms of robbing a store or selling stolen appliances. And again, Wilson has the magic touch to find a bleak vein of comedy in their criminal schemes. Surprisingly, no one is trafficking in drugs, but most of the men have done prison time.
If there’s any hope for this neighborhood it can only come from King Hedley, a wonderfully vivid character in Russell Hornsby’s muscular performance. Although he’s just done seven years in prison for killing a man and proves an inept criminal, this proud and angry man dares to plant flowers in his back yard and to father a child by his girlfriend Tonya (the plucky, if rather too youthful Cherise Boothe).
King’s hope for the future is all bound up with his sense of himself as a man. Unfortunately for this flawed hero, he chooses to define manhood as being his father’s son — and his father was a thief and a murderer.
A sterling cast of Wilson veterans take palpable pleasure in their satellite roles. Lynda Gravatt is an irresistible force of nature as King’s earthy mother, Ruby. Stephen McKinley Henderson chortles with glee as he executes the shady deals of that lucky gambler and all-around smooth operator, Elmore. Curtis McClarin catches the fever of King’s best friend, Mister, who urges him to greater heights of the delusional grandeur that consumes him. And Lou Myers manages to find the quiet center of gravity in the neighborhood soothsayer, Stool Pigeon.
The problem with the play, left unsolved by Sanders’ earnest but unfocused helming, is that it has no compelling plot beyond King’s through-line obsession to “be somebody.” Much of the action takes place offstage; scenes turn on events that occurred in the past; and conflicts are generated by characters now dead and buried.
By exercising their considerable professional chops in individually electrifying scenes, the terrific cast can disguise the hollow at the center of the play — but that doesn’t make it go away.