King Hedley II
When a Celebration Arts production clicks, it really, really clicks. In this case, the intersection of a great play with the right cast and a director with a soft hand give us an incredibly true production of August Wilson’s King Hedley II.Set in a violent and poverty-stricken Pittsburgh neighborhood in the turbulent 1980s, King Hedley II is the story of a man’s struggle to find himself and his place in the community and his family. King, recently out of prison, is determined that he “ain’t gonna die poor.” That means he’s hustling refrigerators of unknown provenance and knocking off a jewelry store in hopes of being able to establish a life as a legitimate businessman. But his own deeply held beliefs about manhood and honor provide the tragic flaw that keeps him from success.
As King, Andre Ramey is brooding and volatile, nurturing wounds both minor and major into full-grown resentments. Melinda Wilson, as King’s wife, Tonya, embodies the frustration of a woman who recognizes the treadmill of poverty and crime they are on and sees no way out. The scene in which she describes the reality of her life is one of the high points of the production, with Wilson’s emotional range on full display.
Lisa Tarrer-Lacy (Ruby) brings grace and a depth of experience to the role of King’s mother, and Brandon Rubin (Elmore) is once again the devil’s advocate, alternating as a father figure and an antagonist luring King to violence. As Mister, James R. Ellison III (who was magnificent in Celebration Arts’ production of Topdog/Underdog last season) provides a bit of unexpected comedy along with a bitter encouragement to King’s dark side. Romann Hodge takes the role of Stool Pigeon into the full resonance of the tragic jester, humorous and prophetic by turns.
Ably directed by James Wheatley, the players achieve a sort of communion. The set, a group of houses connected by a shared backyard and alley, acts as their living room, and becomes a sort of altar at which they each seek an unlikely resurrection.