“Seven Guitars”

Yale Repertory Theatre


“Seven Guitars” is receiving an exemplary and almost poetic new production at Yale Repertory Theatre.  This is only fitting, since this play, by August Wilson, first premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre back in 1995.  I saw the original production of “Seven Guitars,” when it transferred to Broadway in 1996, and, while I don’t remember everything about the show twenty years later, it is nice to report that this current staging does do full justice to the play.

Timothy Douglas is the sensitive director of this new production and he manages to mine both the joy and anguish from August Wilson’s words.  “Seven Guitars,” like many of Wilson’s other works, is a show to luxuriate in, particularly in the beauty of the playwright’s language and the memorable characters that he has created.  The fine cast of seven actors comes up aces in their performances and this is truly one of the best productions I have ever seen at Yale Repertory Theatre.

“Seven Guitars” starts with a brief prologue that proves to be haunting in its simplicity.  Nearly all the actors are seated in chairs on the second level of Fufan Zhang’s evocative and expansive set and they all speak directly to the audience.  This opening sets the tone of the production, which manages to embrace a wide range of emotions, including some that feel almost hallucinatory.  Like August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” (which I just recently saw at Hartford Stage), “Seven Guitars” also brings otherworldly elements to the stage.  These elements seem to simmer just below the naturalistic scenes in the show and lend the production a degree of tension and danger.

This is not to say, though, that there isn’t humor in this show.  In fact, there are many moments, particularly in the first act, that are laugh-out-loud funny, as the sense of joy percolates from the characters.  Taking place in 1948, the plot concerns singer/musician Floyd Barton (the terrific and wily Billy Eugene Jones) returning to Pittsburgh after having recorded a hit record.  There is much talk that a music producer in Chicago wants Floyd to record another song and most of the story in “Seven Guitars” involves Floyd trying to surmount the obstacles in his way to further success.  Most of all, there is the reluctance of the woman he loves, Vera (played by the strong-willed, yet vulnerable Rachel Leslie), to join him in Chicago.  Like many of the protagonists in August Wilson plays, the dream of glory seems just beyond Floyd’s reach.

In “Seven Guitars,” the playwright has filled the stage with truly interesting characters.  There is the landlady Louise, portrayed by the funny and sassy Stephanie Berry, who has the running gag of trying to buy “Old Gold” cigarettes.  Wayne T. Carr, as Canewell, and Danny Johnson, as Red Carter, are friends and fellow musicians of Floyd’s in the show, and both actors are excellent.  Some the happiest times in the production are when Floyd, Canewell, and Red Carter are making music together.  Arriving late in the play, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy is quite a firecracker as Louise’s niece Ruby, and her appearance in a red dress late in the second act is a real showstopper.

And then there is the mysterious and haunted character Hedley, played to perfection by Andre De Shields.  Hedley exists just on the outskirts of the show, selling cigarettes and assorted other items, and speaking in dark tones about his life and ancestry.  Not to give anything away, but the uneasiness below the surface in “Seven Guitars” is largely personified by this character.  Having seen Andre De Shields give wonderful performances in such musicals as “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Play On!”, and “The Full Monty,” it is great to see this actor in such a sinister and dramatic role.

Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of “Seven Guitars” is such a success because it manages to include both scenes of extreme happiness and those of deep sorrow, and allows them to coexist onstage.  That somber prologue in “Seven Guitars” is repeated as an epilogue, though its effect at the end of the play is radically different than it is at the beginning of the show.  Director Timothy Douglas has done a wonderful job at getting to the heart of this work and he has cast the right actors to help make that happen.  For those who are going to see “Seven Guitars” at Yale Repertory Theatre—and it is recommended—this production is sure to leave a lasting impression long after the show has ended.

“Seven Guitars” continues performances at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT through December 17, 2016.  For tickets, please visit www.yalerep.org or call the box office at 203-432-1234.

Photo: L-R: Andre De Shields and Billy Eugene Jones

Photo by Joan Marcus

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