Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton has just had his first hit as a blues musician, but his hard times are hardly over. He’s not having much luck winning back the affections of his no-nonsense girlfriend, Vera, after having had an affair with someone else. And, fresh out of the workhouse (i.e., prison), he doesn’t have enough money to get his electric guitar back from the pawn shop, or to travel from his hometown of Pittsburgh to Chicago, to do more recording.
And so, like the archetypal bluesman Robert Johnson, the main character in “Seven Guitars” — which opened this weekend at the Two River Theater in Red Bank — makes a kind of deal with the Devil, and suffers the consequences.
“Seven Guitars” — written by August Wilson in 1995, but set in 1948, as part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” (10 plays, each taking place in one decade of the 20th century) — tells a story of simple, almost mythological power, though its scenes are all realistic, and set in the same plain, slightly run-down backyard. Barton, Vera and five of their friends and neighbors gather to eat, and pass the time, and chat, sometimes rather aimlessly. It can all seem a little mundane at times, but there’s a rich world here, of shared jokes and long-simmering tensions and — especially when they’re celebrating a win by boxer Joe Louis or making music together — joyful camaraderie.
It’s also, though, a world of shocking violence, in a scene where one character cuts a head off a rooster, and another where a character dies in a way that comes out of left field but also seems to have a tragic inevitability.
Brandon J. Dirden, who was very good as the main character in “Your Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine” at the Two River Theater in the spring, returns, though he is directing “Seven Guitars” and not acting. He coaxes solid performances from his cast, particularly Kevin Mambo as Barton, whose boyish charm usually (but not always) masks his darker side; Christina Acosta Robinson as the stoic Vera, who is clearly wary of being hurt by him again; and Brian D. Coats as Hedley, the sometimes wise but sometimes crazy-sounding oddball of the bunch, who is suffering from tuberculosis but seems to be pulsating with wild energy when he’s on one of his rants.
Two River Theater also produced acclaimed productions of “Pittsburgh Cycle” plays “Jitney” and “Two Trains Running” in 2012 and 2013, respectively; I wouldn’t be surprised if it keeps returning to Wilson until the cycle is complete.
“Seven Guitars” is at Two River Theater through Oct. 4; visit tworivertheater.org.