The production incorporates some 30 well-known, mostly American songs from the 19th and 20th centuries, such as “Camp Town Races,” “Little Brown Jug,” and “Give Me That Old-Time Religion.” Those of us who had a solid grade school education will know the words to several of them.
The songs, which are performed a capella, and not always in their entirety, enhance the comic, haunting, and moving stories the dead recount of their completed lives. Even low-key patriots will be stirred by the combination of Masters’ prose and masterworks from the American musical canon. “Spoon River: The Cemetery on the Hill” is Americana at its best.
Audiences should approach any production of “Spoon River” not as a play in the strict sense but as lyrical history, told from the bottom up. There is no plot, and the characters don’t change or develop, which is understandable since they’re in fact dead.
The many and varied personalities—none of them black—from the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois, who offer autobiographical snippets are, with the exception of Mary Todd Lincoln, not Great Men and Women as defined by historians.
They are instead teachers, ministers, soldiers, retailers, alcoholics, aspiring writers, hell-raisers, entertainers, and one scheming divorcee. Masters has given common folk a voice and a platform, anticipating the form and style of many classic American plays over the past century.
Contemporary audiences will find uncomfortably close the bitter memories of thwarted ambition: a woman who wanted to write novels but chose marriage and motherhood, and a man who wanted to write novels and speeches but couldn’t break out of his dead-end circumstances. In America today, no less than 120 years ago, there is great anxiety about failing to realize one’s potential in the land of opportunity.
A number of the characters in the play were either killed in the Civil War or spent much of their lives grieving for those who were. Among the greatest strengths of “Spoon River” is that it reminds us of that war’s devastating impact in a state such as Illinois, which sacrificed so many soldiers on both sides.
Ironically, two years after “Spoon River” was published, the United States entered World War I, which would begin a series of U.S. conflicts overseas that continues to this day. As Masters was writing about a distinct period in American history, roughly 1865-1910, a new one was about to take its place.
O’Connell appears to have divided the eight-person cast, which is evenly split between men and women, into groups of characters. David Aaron is introspective, wise, and, in the opening scene, Edgar Lee Masters himself. The lumbering Steven B. Green has a number of funny turns playing men who like to consume large amounts of alcohol. Madelyne Heyman movingly portrays several women who died tragically young. Marbry Steward is cunning and sly as the much-married woman who may have helped her rich husbands meet their awful fates. David Pinion and Ian Hopps vividly convey the anger and bitterness of men who feel society wronged them. Rachel Geis and JC Henning are effective portraying many women who feel the same.
“Spoon River: The Cemetery on the Hill,” runs Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through March 22. Tickets are $18 at the door; $10 online at http://www.electiccompanytheatre.org.
The Eclectic Company Theatre is located 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village, 91607.