August Wilson's King Hedley II is more than three hours long, and it has the thematic sweep and blood-and-guts attack of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy. Yet for all its heft, it feels like a minor work. Now, a minor work by a major playwright is still better than the masterstroke of a putz. So yes, there's some wonderful dialogue and vernacular poetry here, some great yarns woven into the tangled narrative, and the Penumbra Theatre's area premiere doesn't drag despite its length. But neither does it have much of an impact; it's more bummer than tragedy.
Set in Pittsburgh's depressed Hill District in 1985, Hedley catches up with some of the characters from Wilson's superb Seven Guitars. In the earlier work, set in 1948, the original Hedley described killing a man who wouldn't call him "King." In the sequel, the younger Hedley (Lester Purry) has done time for a murder that sprung from a similar dispute. He and his lifelong friend Mister (David Alan Anderson) are saving up their criminally acquired money to open a video store. They're ultimately sidetracked by a visit from cunning playboy Elmore (film actor Ernie Hudson), who's looking to win back Hedley's previously absentee mother Ruby (Rhodessa Jones). As Elmore, the towering Hudson is simultaneously attractive and loathsome, as charismatically oversized as his double-breasted suit jackets.
The musicality of Wilson's plays has become proverbial, and critics have suggested that Hedley's plentiful aria-like speeches make it his opera. Since most of the show's characters pack heat, it's also something like an early gangsta-rap record as performed by oldsters. If only in terms of volume, the precise analogues for this production would seem to be Wagner and N.W.A. It begins with Stool Pigeon (Jim Craven, in a performance that's similar to his turn in Penumbra's February staging of Two Trains Running) shouting one of his half-crazy, half-profound jeremiads. And it raises the volume all the way to the final gunshot.
And though I feel like my grandfather for saying so, I think this is my problem with Lou Bellamy's staging: It's too loud, both literally and figuratively. The speeches all seem to be yelled from the stump, while the movie-style music that occasionally swells up calls attention to the important parts. At one point, Hedley's pregnant wife Tonya (Tonia Jackson) waxes passionate about not wanting to bring another child into a cruel world of violence and injustice. It's a keening speech, and I didn't buy a word of it. Call me a cynic, but that "I don't want to bring a baby into this cruel world" plaint seems trite--and all the more so when it's delivered with such stentorian investment. In fact, the clichés abound: Hedley plants seeds in a hard patch of dirt, and against all odds, they grow. To wit: One hopes that when these Pittsburgh players next sprout up, they won't be stuck reaping such barren images.