In “Spoon River Anthology,” the dead are a restless, lively lot. They gossip, canoodle, fight and vent strong opinions on the goings-on above and below ground. What they were in life they are in death, only imbued with a sense of what has been lost.
The American Century Theater reinvigorates this staple of high school drama clubs and community theaters in a visually commanding production under the direction of Shane Wallis. He rejects the usual graveyard setting, which makes “Spoon River” a stringier and more depressed version of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” in favor of a rocky, cavernous underworld that puts you in mind of a mine shaft.
In this hellish, closed-off world, the departed citizens of Spoon River, Illinois tell their stories and demand to be remembered. Their fragmented natures are revealed through Jennifer Tardiff’s effective costumes, which are tatters of their everyday clothing combined with fabric cascading down their backs like angel’s wings or the remnants of the burial shroud.
On the surface, “Spoon River” may not seem like a play that would grab modern audiences. For one thing, it is all poetry, a 1963 adaptation by character actor Charles Aidman of Edgar Lee Masters’ collection of poems about people living and dying in a Midwestern town. “Spoon River Anthology” was published in 1915, and comparisons were made to Walt Whitman. Mr. Masters’ verse once was recited in schoolrooms across the country, but he, too, has fallen into obscurity as our interest in poetry has faded to near-nothingness.
The show is also stylized and nonlinear, and the characters are not the polite, detached ghostly figures you find in “Our Town.” Using dramatic monologues, dance and expressionistic movement, a cast of eight actors (J.J. Area, Caroline Ashbaugh, Edward Daniels, Theo Hadjimichael, Ellie Nicoll, Sasha Olinick, Anna Marie Sell, Patricia Williams) portray more than 50 people from small town America.
The characters are a cross-section of society: the spinster schoolteacher who expresses her maternal instinct through attention lavished on students, the town drunk who unrepentantly relates his death from cirrhosis of the liver, a lawyer (clutching his only friend in the world, a dog, which apparently followed him into the afterlife) and his embittered and cruel wife, a vamp, an inventor and legions of cast-off spouses. Spoon River was a swinging town, full of gamblers, skirt-chasers, liars, fighters, avengers and thieves — and these are just the dead people.
In Mr. Wallis’ intense staging, nobody is particularly happy with being dead, except a woman named Lucinda Matlock (played by Patricia Williams), who lived well into her 90s and was ready for eternal rest.
For the first act, you find yourself engrossed in the tragedies and petty beefs of the characters, and the strong cast deftly portrays a wide array of personalities. In keeping with the overall severity of the piece, the actors tend to depict every character at the same furious pitch, and by the second act, you are drowning in pessimism and wretchedness.
American Century Theater’s production of “Spoon River Anthology” emphasizes the darkness and despair of a small-town’s dead souls, and while it all gets a bit thick at times, the power of Mr. Masters’ poetry remains vigorous nearly 100 years later.
WHAT: “Spoon River Anthology,” by Edgar Lee Masters
WHERE: American Century Theater, Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Jan. 28
TICKETS: $23 to $29