Death minus redemption

Teens play characters who lament lives of loss and sadness in Carson Performing Arts’ Spoon River Anthology

Teens play dead Midwesterners in <i>Spoon River Anthology</i>.

Teens play dead Midwesterners in Spoon River Anthology.

Photo by David Robert

Rated 2.0

Based on the pitch, you might be expecting quaintness. Spoon River Anthology is a series of tales told by small-town Illinois folk. Carson Performing Arts puts on this play with a cast of teenagers wearing prairie garb.

But be warned—Prairie Home Companion it ain’t. Spoon River Anthology is two hours of death and mourning, and the good-natured Midwesterners have no hope for redemption—all of the anthology’s characters are dead at the beginning of the play, telling their stories as graveyard retrospectives.

The idea that anyone could sum up his or her life story in a minute of monologue is depressing in and of itself. Add to that the litany of tragedies heaped upon these poor characters, and you’ve got a very heavy piece of drama.

Spoon River Anthology takes us back to the days when people worked hard on their farms, stayed in miserable marriages because they had no choice, had litters of children and died of diseases like lockjaw.

Performed in Carson City Community Center’s intimate theater-in-the-round, the show immediately draws the audience into its construct. When they’re not on stage, the 35 actors occupy the front rows of seats and, due to the size of the theater, rival the audience in number.

When the ensemble sings an elegy, it feels like the entire theater is singing, like we have all been transported to the mythical Illinois graveyard. The haunting atmosphere turns scarier when one realizes that everyone buried in this cemetery is under the age of 20.

The anthology is an American classic and the cast put forth a strong effort, though it often didn’t quite master the poignant, beautifully written passages. The lamentations of an old woman buried with decades of regrets feel odd when recited by a fresh-faced 17-year-old in a hoop skirt. Although some of the characters in Spoon River died young, most did not. They tell stories of unfaithful spouses, unfulfilled career ambitions and the sorrows of old age. Even the most talented young actors would have a hard time convincing an adult audience that they know how it feels to be widowed or outlive one’s child.

Despite all these challenges, the cast did demonstrated some serious spurts of talent.

KayCee Brugger, Vanae Vidovich and Crystal Blakeman gave memorable performances, delivering their monologues articulately and with appropriate emotion. Andie Anderson also stood out, her lovely vocals brightening every song she sang in.

It’s easy to respect a group of teenagers who sacrifice precious hanging-out time to talk about death and inhabit such despondent characters. It’s a bit harder to suspend one’s disbelief and take life lessons from a cast that, thankfully, has so much to live for.