By Ronnie Ruff
A touch of Americana based on the original collection of poems by Edgar Lee Masters, strummed folk guitar and well presented poetic dialog all make for an interesting piece of theatre in Arlington at Gunston II. The American Century Theater identifies rarely produced American plays and produces them for the enjoyment of DC theatre audiences. I was pleased with quite a few aspects of TACT’s mounting of this collection of American poetry and song — TACT is to be congratulated for tackling a difficult piece of material and making it work most of the time.
In Edgar Lee Masters work of poetry the dead in an Illinois graveyard relay, in matter-of-fact and haunting tones, detailed bits from their lives. The Anthology, when it was published, was original, provoking and meaningful. Masters wove a thread of fractional authenticity throughout the work. Many of the characters and their experiences can be associated with former residents of Lewistown and Petersburg, Illinois. Masters’ used his childhood memories of these two towns, as a basis for the poems.
The first thing that caught my attention in TACT’s production was the fantastic sound design by Matt Neilson. Various sounds of small town existence are brought into the space from different directions creating a swirling soundscape of rustic, early 1900’s Midwest life. The first act ends with a beating heart that lingers long after intermission. Period costumes by Jennifer Tardiff were tattered and worn; some actors had only one shoe or were barefoot. This unique design served to capture a visual of the long since dead who have returned to tell their stories. The tales are haunting and captivating — the cast delivered each eulogy with passion and care, all a tribute to the original material. The musical numbers had a raw but vulnerable feel, perfect for these classic folk numbers.
The large number of life stories told (over 50) and limited number of actors (eight) to tell them makes it sometimes difficult to distinguish between characters. The actors do not change costume with every character change which adds to the confusion. That said this production stands on it’s poetic delivery, interesting sound design and homespun musical numbers. ACT does a fine job retelling these poetic confessions of a time past — if spooky bits of American rural existence laced with folky music and stylish production are your thing this may be a show for you.
The show runs January 6-January 28. Performances are at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 PM and 2:30 matinees on January 8, 14, 15, 21, 22, 28. Tickets including senior and student discounts are $23-$29. For information or ticket purchase or group sales call 703-553-8782 or www.americancentury.org.