With Two River Theater’s current staging of August Wilson’s “King Hedley II,” the Red Bank company has reached the halfway mark in producing the 10-plays that comprise the playwright’s American Century Cycle.
Actor Brandon J. Dirden, whose career includes TV, Broadway and five plays here (two by Wilson), has done an outstanding job once again with a superb cast of six very accomplished actors and a skilled technical team.
Dirden also chose to stage the play in the 110-seat Marion Huber Theater. The actors are in your face and their thoughts, feelings and desperation are visceral. It’s down-and-dirty theater that, at times, takes your breath away.
Wilson’s characters talk about the their future but they just can’t seem to out run their past. Nor are they benefitting from President Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics that dominated the 1980s, but is never mentioned here.
Decade by decade, Wilson examined African-American life in the 20th century, with all but one play set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he grew up.
“King Hedley II” takes place in 1985 and is sort of a sequel to “Seven Guitars” set 37 years earlier in 1948. Not having seen the first (staged here in 2015) is no impediment to seeing the latter.
“Seven Guitars” focuses on a musician putting a band together to make a record. Two characters in it — Canewell, now known as Stool Pigeon and a religious zealot, and Ruby, a young niece of Louise newly arrived from Alabama now retired from singing in a traveling band — return in “King Hedley II.”
Elmore (Harvy Blanks), who was courting Ruby (Elain Graham), was mentioned but not seen. You see and hear a lot of him in “King Headly II.”
The two-story gritty set (designed by Michael Carnahan with lighting by Kathy A. Perkins) is dominated by the dilapidated houses of Ruby and Stool Pigeon, who live next door to each other. Their homes are scheduled to be razed by the city.
Ruby can’t wait to get her money and be gone. Stool Pigeon (Brian D. Coats), on the other hand, feels a responsibility to the community, especially since the recent death of Aunt Ester, the community’s mystic adviser. The play opens and closes with his righteous orations and are sprinkled through out.
King Hedley (Blake Morris), in an intense and muscular performance), spent seven years in jail. A long scar runs down his left cheek — a reminder from the man he killed. He wants to start over with his wife Tonya (Brittany Bellizeare) but needs $20,000 to buy the video store he covets. He also planting seeds in lousy soil that don’t have a chance of surviving no matter what he does — kind of like himself and the people around him.
That includes the baby Tonya is carrying but plans to abort. Having given birth before as a teenager, she doesn’t want to watch another child grow up and make the same dead-end mistakes everyone around her have made. Her rant on how nothing changes from generation to generation is powerful and heartbreaking.
King and his high school pal Mister (Charlie Hudson III) are selling stolen GE refrigerators, but King is impatient. Mister, who has a fair share of comic moments, which Hudson excels in, suggests they rob a jewelry store for quick money and offers to take Wednesday off from his job making nails so he will be available.
Elmore, also an ex-con and ex-lover of King’s mother Ruby, reappears. He’s a hustler who specializes in shooting craps. Blanks suits the part, but his character is selfish, long-winded and rambles. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, the play would benefit with trimming in Act 2.
Ruby paid her Aunt Louise to raise King while she toured with the band. He considers her his real mother. Unbeknownst to him, she has a secret about his father.
King, Mister and Elmore. Three grown men with no marketable skills falling further behind. They live from day-to-day. They like to show off their guns. But guns foreshadow trouble. Then Elmore makes a decision that changes everything.
Performances Wednesday through Sundays through Dec. 16. Ticket $40 to $80, with discounts available; limited number of $20 tickets, may be partial view; age 30 and younger $20, best available seats each performance. For more info, visit tworivertheater.org or call 732-345-1400.