When the title character in King Hedley II talks about the man he murdered—a crime for which he just served seven years in prison—he summons a sharp allusion. "I got the atomic bomb as far as he concerned," King says. "And I got to use it."
King's reference is an apt one: An apocalyptic threat simmers throughout August Wilson's play, the ninth in his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle. Set in 1985 in a black Pittsburgh neighborhood ravaged by socioeconomic decline, violence and spiritual blight—evocatively rendered with the set's chain-link fence, dirt floor and wind chime made of weather-beaten forks and spoons—a sense of decay pervades the play's proceedings. But while King may seek spiritual and economic redemption, the bitter temptations of crime, vengeance and self-destruction tick around him, like bombs ready to blast. Much damage has already been wrought, but outright devastation looms at the squeaky screen door.
Wilson's play receives a fittingly forceful production at Portland Playhouse, finely directed by Jade King Carroll. Hedley is not Wilson's tautest work: The playwright is deservedly acclaimed for his operatic monologues, but in Hedley they're needlessly discursive and laden with excess backstory. The plot points skitter about the stage like the dice the characters throw, and the characters' psychological motivations can turn from painfully raw to frustratingly muddy. But what the script lacks in focus is more than made up for in the intensity and immediacy of the performances. The cast masterfully harnesses Wilson's fiery poetry, seamlessly moving from playful banter to gritty, rapturous disquisitions on present-day injustices and the profound weight of history. "I used to be worth $1,200 during slavery," says King, in one especially stark pronouncement. "Now I'm worth $3.35 an hour."
Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Peter Macon plays King with keen physical and vocal command. His deep voice booms and resonates, a bomb unto itself, and he storms about the stage with smoothly swinging arms and determined steps. But this is not mere posturing, and Macon tempers the heat of his performance with flashes of tenderness and uncertainty. After a dream, King asks the other characters if they can see a halo around his head—he imagines being crowned, perhaps, but he also craves validation—and he's so determined to protect his freshly planted flower seeds that he places barbed wire around the plot.
As King attempts to sell stolen refrigerators with his accomplice Mister (Vin Shambry, in a tremendously vigorous performance), he also works to reconcile with his long-distant mother, Ruby, played with ferocity, melancholy and irrepressible charm by Monica Parks. Meanwhile, King's pregnant wife, Tonya (Ramona Lisa Alexander), assesses the value of bringing a child into a ravaged world; Ruby's onetime lover Elmore (John Cothran Jr.) returns to Pittsburgh to woo her once again; and the Tiresias-like Stool Pigeon (Victor Mack) delivers blunt biblical interpretations (he more than once informs us that "God is a bad motherfuckerâ).
Even as the cast peppers the labyrinthine tale with humor and warmth, Hedley remains a tragedy of grand and aching proportions. The characters may sing and joke, but they've got handguns in their pockets, ready to fire, and bombs in their souls, ready to detonate.
SEE IT: King Hedley II is at Portland Playhouse, 602 NE Prescott St., 488-5822. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 pm Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays, Dec. 13-30. $23-$32.