Forty years ago actor Charles Aidman—one of the founding members of Theatre West—conceived, adapted, and performed this compelling collection of Edgar Lee Masters' graveside monologues written in free verse and first published in 1915. It was a critical and commercial triumph here and on Broadway in 1962, and it continues to be a poignant and powerful theatrical experience today. It's refreshing to see an older play worthy of revival.
Original cast members Betty Garrett and Joyce Van Patten co-directed this production, along with musical director Naomi Caryl. These talented women were there from the beginning, and we sense their pride, protection, and love for the material. The gifted ensemble of Abbott Alexander, Bridget Hanley, Drew Katzman, and Lee Meriwether creates more than 70 characters, who from the cemetery on the hill in Spoon River, Ill., reveal the truth of their lives with great authenticity. Through an accent, small prop, or body language, each actor becomes a distinct and fully realized character. It's impossible to single one out; this is one of the best acting ensembles I have ever seen. Singing original songs by Caryl and Aidman, Jane George and Andy Taylor add immeasurably to the experience with their clear and strong voices and their fine musicianship.
The monologues have a deep and satisfying cumulative effect. The characters may have lived more than 150 years ago, but their circumstances and challenges are timeless and universal: a shy woman overlooked in life and in death, the couple who remain in a loveless marriage, a sensitive young man who must escape small-town life, the middle-aged man coming to terms with unrealized dreams. We know these people. They find peace of mind by accepting and coping with their destinies, or they remain angry and bitter. They are you and I.
Perhaps after an extended run here, history will repeat itself, and Spoon River Anthology will head for New York just like it did 40 years ago. It should, because this production is perfection.
"Spoon River Anthology," presented by and at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m. Sun. 2 p.m. May 23-June 23. $20-25. (323) 851-7977.