Review: “Seven Guitars”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Court Theater, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: Through Feb. 16
Tickets: $45-$65
Phone: 773-753-4472

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I haven’t seen August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” since its world premiere at Goodman Theatre in January 1995, and my opinion of the play hasn’t changed much since then. Court Theatre’s production directed by Ron OJ Parson is another matter: It’s about as good as one can imagine, a few opening night flubs and sloppy cues notwithstanding.

If the late Wilson were a fledgling playwright rather than a revered figure in theater, “Seven Guitars” might be faulted for the meandering style, limited dramatic tension and lack of focus. Part of his century cycle exploring the African American experience in the 20th century decade by decade, it’s set in 1948 in a backyard in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where all but one of the plays takes place. After an opening scene in which the characters gather following the funeral of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the action flashes back to events in roughly the week leading up to the tragedy.

As they talk, talk and talk some more — for close to three hours — the seven people, the “guitars” of the title, reveal their stories in conversations and monologues. These are like blues riffs alternately clashing and harmonizing with each other. They’re fraught with hopes and dreams, more often dashed than realized, as well as with money problems and examples of oppression in a place and time when Black men are arrested for anything and nothing. While some digressions add humor, the language, however poetic, becomes repetitive, and the first act in particular bogs down at times. This is especially true because we pretty much know exactly what’s going to happen.

The power of “Seven Guitars,” then, depends on how completely we’re captivated by the characters. The glue that binds them together is Floyd Barton, and in Kelvin Roston Jr. Court has an actor who effectively brings together the promising blues singer’s strengths and weaknesses. Puffed up by the success of his first record, he’s determined to get the funds and his band together to make a second but is frustrated at every turn, from his efforts to collect the back pay for his 90 days in the work house to attempt to retrieve his electric guitar from the pawn shop. Floyd’s other goals are to win back Vera (Ebony Wimbs), the loving but cautious woman he abandoned to go to Chicago the first time with another, and to secure a gravestone for his mother.

Although we learn less about drummer Red Carter, whose wife has just had a baby, and harmonica player Canewell, who has an evangelical streak and is in love with Vera, Ronald Carter and Jerod Haynes respectively make them seem three dimensional and avoid becoming caricatures. For some reason, I left the theater thinking Canewell was the most decent of all the men. Hedley, an islander with tuberculosis who slaughters chickens in the yard to sell sandwiches at events and who rants about the lion of Judah (the Black man) and evil oppressors (white men), is the wildcard, and Allen Gilmore makes his craziness both scary and disturbing. The victim of a seriously flawed social system, he also carries the weight of a lot of Wilson’s symbolism, foretelling the future, casting a curse and ultimately delivering the coup de gras.

The playwright’s women are definite types, but the actresses flesh them out nicely. Louise is the older voice of experience who lives upstairs, and Felicia Fields is sublime, from her sly sarcasm to her unaccompanied blues singing (and, yes, the songs are raunchy). As her flirtatious niece Ruby, who arrives from the South after getting in trouble with two men, Erynn Mackenzie is just right; she looks sensational in a tight red dress, and each time she walks up the long flight of steps to Louise’s apartment, all the men are justifiably enthralled. Her opposite in many ways, Wimbs is interesting as Vera, a practical woman wounded by love who’s reluctant to open her heart again yet tempted to give it a try. The push-and-pull between her and Floyd adds some drama to Act One, and Ruby’s arrival gives it a needed boost.

Regina Garcia’s scenic design, with its red-brick facades and backyard paraphernalia, is very evocative, but as a stickler for details, I thought the stone steps and door frame to Vera’s apartment looked more like a front than a rear entrance. But maybe things are different in Pittsburgh than in Chicago. Marc Stubblefield’s lighting design is just fine, as are Christine Pascual’s costumes (though, from where I sat, it looked like some of the stockings didn’t have seams), and Joshua Horvath’s sound design. The pre-curtain blues recordings are a real plus.

All in all, if you’re a fan of Wilson’s plays, Court’s “Seven Guitars” is a must see. If not, go for the acting and be prepared for the distinctive structure and leisurely style.