With the recent death of George H.W. Bush, we’ve heard a lot of nostalgia, this month, for what was supposedly a kinder, gentler time in American history. Presenting a different point of view is “King Hedley II,” the August Wilson play that is currently being presented at the Two River Theater in Red Bank.
The play is part of Wilson’s justly celebrated American Century Cycle, which includes 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th Century. (The Two River Theater has produced four others since 2012, and pledges to do the other five as well). Like most of the plays in the Cycle, it is set in Pittsburgh’s predominantly African-American Hill District. The year is 1985 — it’s in the middle of the Reagan/Bush years, in other words — and while the economy may be booming elsewhere, the characters in “King Hedley II” face a constant uphill battle to make ends meet. “King Hedley II” is, arguably, the darkest play in Wilson’s Cycle. Director Brandon J. Dirden explains in the program that this is one of the things — as well as its relatively small, six-person cast — that makes it a natural for Two River’s small, 110-seat Marion Huber Theatre, rather than its larger Joan and Robert Rechnitz Theatre (which was used for the other four plays in the Cycle).
Blake Morris plays the title character, a visibly scarred ex-con trying to get his life together and prove himself worthy of the love of the hard-working and somewhat jaded Tonya (Brittany Bellizeare), who is pregnant with his child and considering having an abortion. He and Tonya live with his mother, Ruby (Elain Graham), a blues singer whose younger self was a character in Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” (presented by the Two River Theater in 2015).
King and his friend, Mister (Charlie Hudson II), are working as refrigerator salesmen; the appliances are, presumably, stolen, but at least they didn’t do the stealing themselves. King’s dream is to open his own video store, but he doesn’t have enough money to do it. A robbery opportunity comes up, but by taking it, he risks going back to prison.
Meanwhile, Elmore (Harvy Blanks), a charming con man and a longtime suitor of Ruby, has returned to Pittsburgh, and re-entered Ruby’s life. Rounding out the cast is Brian D. Coates as Stool Pigeon, the oracular, Bible-quoting oddball who lives next door.
It’s a play about two charismatic men (King and Elmore), who seem capable of greatness but also have had bad luck and have made bad choices, and the long-suffering women (Tonya and Ruby) who try to straighten them out. I wasn’t crazy about the final, tragic twist, though; it seems more like a horrific accident than something that grows organically from the plot.
Still, the cast, and Dirden, bring Wilson’s richly multi-dimensional characters to life. I’m looking forward to Two Rivers’ next Cycle installment, and hope that after they finish (sometime during next decade, presumably), they’ll start all over again.
The Two River Theater in Red Bank presents “King Hedley II” through Dec. 16. Visit tworivertheater.org.