By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
“They say you don’t miss your water until your well run dry.”
These words, spoken softly and without sentiment, could describe many of the themes in People’s Light and Theatre Company’s monumental production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars: the melancholy mood of its blues music, the funeral that opens and closes the play, the revolving door of the boarding house where this story takes place, and the promise and eventual burnout of northern cities that lured African Americans up from the Deep South after World War II.
Set in 1948, the flashbacks in Wilson’s play chronicle a few weeks in the lives of seven boarding-house residents. The three-story structure, complete with backyard and garden, anchors a literal street of Hill District tenements in designer Alexis Distler’s startling set. Here, blues guitarist Floyd Barton (the charming Morocco Omari) has just returned to Pittsburgh from a 90-day vagrancy stint in a Chicago jail.
He wants to persuade the girlfriend he abandoned 18 months earlier to leave her life for Chicago, where a recording contract awaits. But he must compete for her affections with interlopers Canewell (Francois Battiste) and Red (Brian Anthony Wilson).
Little but life happens. More bad luck follows bad decisions, corruption peels away fraying fragments of possibility, older generations chime in with crazed or cynical criticism, and each man longs for the chance to correct the mistakes of the past. Barton can either drift permanently into their rut or take a bold risk to build a life where “everything can’t go wrong all the time.”
Through her subtle direction, Jade King Carroll turns this tragicomedy into a study in contrasts: moments of hope punctured by misfortune, friendship brokered by violence, levity lessened by loss. She tempers all of it with the blues motif embodied in Barton’s hit song, “It’s All Right.” In a play filled with broken dreams, Dennis Parichy’s lighting evokes the promise of each day's sunshine against the nightmarish violence that erupts after twilight.
Lines of poetry pour forth, particularly from Battiste’s silvery tongue, telling symbolic stories of proud roosters and idle men, and of Highway 61, a route that carried millions of African Americans north like a river, blues music filling their sails like a great billowing soul now dispersed into vapors. At People’s Light, that river runs again.
Seven Guitars Through Oct. 7 at People's Light and Theatre Company, 29 Conestoga Road, Malvern. Tickets: $25-$45. 610-644-3500 or peopleslight.org.