Tuesday, February 17, 2015

SPOON RIVER – Take Time to Explore the Depths

Shown in picture (left to right): Cindy Swager, Robbie Estabrook, Debbie Davis, Steve Pitzer, Sarah Kollars,and Chuck Weed. Picture by Tyson Redifer.

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

Every once in awhile it is comforting to be reminded that sin, corruption, and hypocrisy are not recent creations of a godless, materialistic present that has somehow eluded the timeless virtues of classic traditional values. Way back in 1915 Edgar Lee Masters wrote the original Spoon River Anthology, adapting a unique narrative structure in service of the occasionally depressing but eternal truth that small towns often breed small minds; people who live their lives with more concern for propriety than joy end up buried on the same hill as those who fully embrace life – but they have a lot less fun getting there.

Charles Aidman’s 1963 theatrical adaptation of Spoon River is, like the original book, a gloomily captivating glimpse of 19th century Americana, and the version presented by HART co-directors Paul Roder and Tyson Redifer faithfully captures the grim ambience of both Aidman’s and Masters’ vision. While the lighting, music, and graveyard setting all help to create the necessary mood, it is the six-person core cast that really brings the show’s eerie tone to life.

The dramatically abridged HART production does not include all of the songs and other material from the Broadway original, but it does include brief segments of original music by bassist Chris Ronek and fiddler Tamera Snelling.  Redifer and Roder have selected a very talented cast, and their choices for which actors populate each of the dozens of separate tableaus ensures steady quality across the performances. Core actors Chuck Weed, Cindy Swager, Steve Pitzel, Debbie Davis, Robbie Estabrook, and Sarah Kollars easily shift from character to character, often quietly modifying their personas along with their wardrobes upstage while other actors are momentarily the center of attention. Musical numbers are handled primarily by two extraordinarily gifted singers and actors, Estabrook and Kollars, whose rendition of  “Drunk As I Could Be” is both a musical and a comic highlight of the show. 

Light Board Operator Libby Solheim does a masterful job of implementing Peter Stein’s clever lighting design. Without a single set change, the audience is able to follow the cast through the show’s many vignettes and imputed locales. The live and prerecorded music work well together, providing a consistent soundtrack to create the necessary mood. On opening night there were a few places where the canned music was a bit too loud, and the actors’ lines consequently muddied – but this can easily be fixed.

Unless audience members enter the theater already thoroughly familiar with Spoon River Anthology, the show will require some contemplation. Be prepared to enjoy the production while you are there, but to see your appreciation grow over time as you think about what you have seen. Roder, Redifer and company have succeeded in plumbing the depths of Masters’ and Aidman’s complex and challenging narrative.

Hillsboro Artists’ Regional Theatre (HART) presents Spoon River Anthology through Sunday, March 1, with performance Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m.

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