In these days of short attention spans, when the “ideal play” is described as being 70 minutes with no intermission, the very idea of a three-hour evening in the theatre is enough to make some audiences cringe. “How will I stay awake that long? How can anything be interesting for three hours?!?”
Well, if the play is by the great August Wilson, and is in the hands of a group of superlative actors working under an assured director, it can be interesting and then some. In Michele Shay’s production of King Hedley II at the Matrix Theatre, the three hours fly by.
Mr. Wilson, who died in 2005, was best known for “The Pittsburgh Cycle” – 10 plays about the African-American experience throughout the twentieth century, of which King Hedley II is one. He wrote with specificity, not only of place (with the exception of one of the plays, the Hill District of Pittsburgh) and time (each play takes place in a different decade), but also of language. Characters erupt in geysers of words: they use language to caress, to cajole, to threaten, and to punish. While there are cascades of words in each of Mr. Wilson’s plays, none are extraneous, and every one of them takes aim straight at the minds and hearts of the audience.
All the actors are splendid. Mr. Pritchett is a striking figure, tall, with a shaved head and burning eyes, looking as if he could break in half anyone who angered him. And yet there’s a vulnerability to King, almost an innocence, and Mr. Pritchett’s ability to convey this makes us – perversely yet inevitably – root for him even at his most despicable.
Mr. Chaffin quietly plays second-fiddle to King, going along even when he knows what’s about to happen could be a disaster; Mister’s wife has left and taken the furniture, and Mr. Chaffin deftly conveys the desperation of a grown man reduced to sleeping on the floor.
As a sometime-doddering, sometimes-forceful presence which suggests a Greek chorus, Mr. Ward is by turns chilling and hilarious. His repeated description of God – “a bad motherf**ker” – brings laughs throughout the evening.
But perhaps the biggest laugh of the night is earned by Ms Joyce, as she nonchalantly tosses off a line late in the play about performing a sex act and the “need to do it again.” The actress, who originated the role of Tonya in the world premiere of the play some years ago, moves into the role of Ruby with grace and a fierce dignity: whether going for laughs, or living through the worst nightmare a mother can face, there isn’t a false note in Ms Joyce’s performance – she’s simply magnificent.
John Iacovelli’s detailed set puts us – literally – in the hardscrabble dirt the characters must surmount, while Derek Jones’s lighting, Mylette Nora’s costumes, and Kevin Novinsky’s sound make valuable contributions.
My only quibble is the way the evening begins: as the audience sits facing a fully-lit set, a piece of music plays, loudly. Presumably it’s meant to set the scene, but (to me anyway) the lyrics were incomprehensible, and the piece lasts a full five minutes. It was an inauspicious way to start.
Thankfully, once the actors entered, all was well. King Hedley II is a powerful play, stunningly acted and well-directed. Go ahead and spend three hours with these characters – you won’t regret it.
King Hedley II
Written by August Wilson
Directed by Michele Shay
Through February 12
7657 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Tickets: 800-838-3006 or EventBrite: August Wilson King Hedley II