With “The Trip to Bountiful” and “Landscape of the Body,” the Signature Theater Company in its 15th season has shown a flair for lovingly staged rediscoveries of American plays slightly left of the contemporary classic canon. These productions are notable for their nuanced exploration of character and fine performances. Kicking off the company’s three-play August Wilson series, “Seven Guitars” represents a worthy continuation of that focus. If the production doesn’t ultimately satisfy on all levels, it offers considerable rewards while capturing the poetry and humanity that distinguished the late playwright.
In addition to winning the featured actor Tony as Canewell in the original 1996 production of this play, Ruben Santiago-Hudson appeared on Broadway in Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” which he subsequently directed at the McCarter and at ACT in San Francisco.
The chief asset he brings as director of this revival is a keen ear for the lyrical qualities of Wilson’s dialogue. Music as a vital force in African-American life is a recurring factor in the playwright’s work; in this novelistic play revolving around an ambitious blues guitarist, the intricate patterns and rhythms of folks talking are as intoxicating for the characters as they are for the audience. The actors riff off each other like musicians in a well-oiled ensemble, which is appropriate given that their characters stand in for the seven instruments of the title.
But while Santiago-Hudson has a firm hold on the language and an elegant sense of stage composition, his weaker narrative and thematic grasp point up the play’s flaws. Concision was never among Wilson’s primary strengths, and “Seven Guitars” is a particularly meandering work. Its lengthy first act is concerned not with plot but almost exclusively with character-building, affording pleasurable, unhurried acquaintance with a group of friends and neighbors as they gab in the back yard of a Pittsburgh Hill District tenement house in 1948. (Richard Hoover’s set is rich in depth and detail, enhanced by Jane Cox’s descriptive lighting.)
His confidence (if not his wallet) pumped by the chart success of his first record, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Lance Reddick) returns from 90 days in the workhouse (for “worthlessness”). He’s intent on reclaiming his girlfriend Vera (Roslyn Ruff) and returning with her to Chicago to continue his music career. Burned by his past infidelity, Vera is skeptical. Her speech about the ways in which a woman can be touched by a man and the emptiness that comes with abandonment is among Wilson’s most exquisite passages, delivered with searing vulnerability, anger and longing by Ruff in the production’s loveliest performance.
Also gathering in the backyard are Floyd’s fellow musicians Canewell (Kevin T. Carroll), whose unrequited feelings for Vera ripple painfully below the surface, and Red (Stephen McKinley Henderson), their instruments all in hock. Vera’s neighbors are sassy Louise (Brenda Pressley), who agreed years ago to let her husband walk away alive in exchange for keeping his gun, and Hedley (Charles Weldon), a troubled old man of Caribbean origin, touched in the head and given to invoking the Bible, Marcus Garvey and jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden. Hedley’s hatred of white men causes him to refuse treatment for tuberculosis.
Arriving late is Louise’s pretty niece Ruby (Cassandra Freeman), whose seductive powers have already provoked a crime of passion in Alabama.
The best of the actors — Ruff, Pressley, McKinley Henderson, Carroll and Freeman — give the impression of extreme ease, luxuriating in the sinuous curves and earthy, infectious humor of Wilson’s dialogue. But the pivotal roles of Floyd and Hedley are problematically cast.
Reddick works hard at projecting the charm and hunger of dapper Floyd (the stylish period costumes are by Karen Perry), but his charisma seems fabricated rather than genuine or spontaneous. The play opens with the characters assembling after Floyd’s funeral and then backtracks to the week before. But the muddy plotting, when it finally starts moving in act two, fails to give adequate shape to the guitarist’s rash course of action when his Chicago plans are threatened, to the developments leading to his death or the motivation behind it.
Hedley is a heavy load for any actor: The larger-than-life spiritual character supplies the play’s key connection from the postwar dreams of upward mobility to ongoing injustice and inequality all the way back through history to slavery. Weldon makes him lurch rather than spiral into complete madness, and his tendency to either shout or mumble compromises delivery of some key information. Hedley’s sadness feels more palpable when he’s rocking silently in a chair in the opening scene than when he’s railing that “the place of the black man is not at the foot of the white man’s boot.”
Compensating for the production’s frustrations, however, are its many gratifying incidentals: the characters glued to a radio broadcast of the Joe Louis-Billy Conn title fight; Red breaking into an exhilarating dance version of the Louis shuffle; Canewell talking through a recipe for turnip greens or expounding on the state-to-state differences of the Southern rooster; or the musicians knocking out an impromptu tune. (Bill Sims Jr.’s original blues compositions punctuate the action and help set the tone for each scene.)
In “Seven Guitars” — and throughout his 10-play cycle on the African-American experience — Wilson displayed a rare gift for imbuing everyday people, their conversations and stories with epic resonance. While his production falls short of some of the larger aims, Santiago-Hudson captures the heart of the play, rendering its specific evocation of milieu and mood and its beautifully etched characters with respect and affection.