Small town, big dreams

Spoon River Anthology

By Edgar Lee Masters
Adapted by Charles Aidman
Directed by Ken Bachtold
A Company of Players
The Midtown International Theatre Festival
New 42nd Street Theatre
348 W. 42nd St. (279-4200)
Non-union production (Festival closes Aug. 5; call for times)
Review by Ken Jaworowski

How can a single critique adequately cover a play that tells scores of absorbing stories, touches nearly every strong emotion, and conjures up dozens of engaging personalities? Rather than write a few thousand words, the best review is perhaps a simple and sincere recommendation: see Spoon River Anthology by A Company of Players. It is nothing less than 90 minutes of magic.

Edgar Lee Masters published Spoon River Anthology to great acclaim and controversy in 1915. The 244 free-verse poems tore through the semblance of civility that covered small-town America and exposed the raw passions that controlled the lives of its citizens. Set in a cemetery of the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois, the monologues are delivered by the ghosts of the deceased, who voice the secrets they guarded during their days on earth. Speaking frankly of crushed dreams and concealed pleasures, the citizens are made equal by the great leveler death and no longer hide behind the courtesy and restraint that had so often repressed them in life.

An equal of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Spoon River was adapted for the stage by Charles Aidman and ran on Broadway in 1963. Combining the folksiness of Thorton Wilder's Our Town and the unearthliness of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood, the stage adaptation of Spoon River has the ability to move an audience to tears as well as drive them to laughter. In the hands of skilled actors, this oft-neglected classic is a powerhouse.

Director Ken Bachtold handled the show with great care. His cast never merely recited poetry - they inhabited characters, donning simple accessories and employing gentle gestures to provide detail that further strengthened the first-rate writing. To over 60 scenes, from the spinster schoolteacher to the embittered soldier to the merry ne'er-do-well, Bachtold's direction added vitality and empathy, employing both spoken storytelling and song accompanied by banjo, harmonica, piccolo, guitar and violin.

The 14-person cast, acting out over 50 characters, was a joy. Amanda Hilson's singing voice set a poised, polished standard that was upheld by each subsequent actor. Lawrence Frank and Sean Eager, playing six characters and two instruments between them, were superb, while Tim Katusha and Stephanie Schmiderer each displayed wide range in their performances. Nothing could hold this cast back (not even Alan Kanevsky's erratic lighting, which, sadly, did little to open up the small stage). To listen to them was a pleasure that bordered on the inspiring.

Rarely does a play so effectively capture an expanse of feeling as Spoon River Anthology. Each of the stories, whether regretful, delighted, or incensed, held a core of emotion that never failed to touch the heart. And when combined, they created a play that was a remarkable success.

(Also featuring: Heather Carmichael, Alan Cove, David Dotterer, Jenni Frost, Ellen Sandberg, Ken Scudder, Nikola Smith, Kara Stewart, Stephen Voutsas.)

 Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Sets: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2001 Andrés J. Wrath