'River' Souls Lost, but Not Poetry; Intense Acting Defines Roles in American Century Staging
Byline: Jayne Blanchard, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
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. …