By Joseph Hurley
VOICES FROM THE HILL. Music by Rusty Magee/Andrew Sherman. At the Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th St., NYC. Through April 14.
The Irish Repertory Theatre’s intrepid music director, Rusty Magee, has, with his partner, Andrew Sherman, contributed a set of richly evocative songs to “Voices from the Hill,” a new stage adaptation of one of the most disturbing and controversial American books to have appeared in the early years of the 20th century.
Edgar Lee Masters’s “Spoon River Anthology” was published in 1915, when the author was a 41-year-old Illinois native who had at that time been practicing law in Chicago for 24 years.
The disputed poetic volume contained some 244 miniature autobiographies of the people Masters had known as a boy growing up in two small communities on the banks of the Spoon River, Petersburg and Lewistown.
Masters’s people speak to us from their graves, and their brief “autobiographies” are in fact epitaphs, many of them based partly on information the author gleaned from haunting the cemeteries of the area in which he had spent his youth.
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The new version, adapted by Gregory Wolfe and Gregory J. Sherman, and directed by the former, adds a few poems by Walt Whitman, whose “Leaves of Grass,” first published in 1855, had caused the same sort of censorious uproar that greeted “Spoon River Anthology” 60 years later.
In the new staging, running an intermissionless 90 minutes, a company of eight actors, most of them onstage most of the time, performs the material in a form that mixes pantomime, often wonderfully worked out by the director, with a style that might be described as “direct-to-audience confessional.”
Masters was hardly the first writer to be obsessed by what he believed to be, as he saw it, the sad, sorrowing underside of American life, most particularly small town American life. Some of the examples that come quickly to mind are Sherwood Anderson’s “Wineburg, Ohio,” playwright Horton Foote’s “Harrison, Texas,” and much of the writing of William Faulkner, who created a Mississippi county and returned to it again and again throughout his career as a writer, while Sinclair Lewis invented Gopher Prairie, Minn., and manipulated it in much the same manner.
Masters’s memories are mainly on the dark side, and Wolfe’s gifted octet of players presents anecdote after anecdote dealing with dreary marriages, early deaths and generally disappointing lives.
Disappointing, perhaps, but certainly not uninteresting, particularly as rendered in “Voices from the Hill,” a production of Moonwork, a company which has done, since it was created in 1993, admirable, albeit bare bones, productions of Shakespearean plays, including last season’s “Twelfth Night,” or “What You Will,” a musical adaptation for which Magee provided the rich score.
Director Wolfe, one of the four Moonwork founders, displays considerable grace and skill in moving his actors, garbed in the evocative homespun costumes designed by Cana Botez-Ban and June Wolfe, around the Connelly Theater’s open stage, under flexible lighting provided by designer David Sherman.
The epitaph form can be traced at least as far into the past as the Greek anthology, and was appropriated with great success by playwright Thornton Wilder, who placed the third and final act of “Our Town” in the hillside graveyard of the imaginary New England town, Grover’s Corners, which he had created as a place with which to populate the hard-pressed Yankees he had dreamed up.
In shaping their sampling of “Spoon River Anthology” into “Voices from the Hill,” adaptors Wolfe and Sherman have, probably unavoidably, leaned rather heavily on heartbreak and loss, two of the dominant presences in Masters’s survey of modest American lives lived as the 19th century became the 20th.
In the self-revealing “confessions” of the Illinois folks Masters partly knew and perhaps partly invented, a minister admits to having died of cirrhosis of the liver, while the “official” story at the time had him dying of “watermelon.”
A young wife yearns for a creative career in the arts, but finds that ideal compromised by the arrival of her eight children.
Masters’s “people,” bearing such fanciful names as “Indignation” Jones, Dr. Siegfried Iseman, Jacob Goodpasture, Russian Sonya, Knowlt Hoheimer and Roscoe Purkapile, mingle in death with individuals carrying more routinely conventional “American” identifiers like Dora Williams, Tom Beatty, Ollie McGee, Emily Sparks and Nancy Knapp.
The venture’s frequently poignant duties are divided, more or less equally, among the members of Wolfe’s ensemble cast, comprising Victoria Adams, Lynn Eldredge, Aloysius Gigl, Jeanne Goodman, Mason Pettit, Noel Velez, Christopher Yates and Elizabeth Zins.
Among director Wolfe’s best and brightest moments is a scene in which Eldredge, playing an energetic town resident, does her wash, with her fellow performers acting as washboards and then as scrubbed clothing hung out to dry in the Illinois sun.
The richly enjoyable “Voices from the Hill” might, among other things, serve to send readers back to the too-little-known pleasures of Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology.”
— Joseph Hurley