Germinal's ensemble cast shines in Spoon River Anthology

The stage is set up for a cozy Halloween party: autumn-leaf ornaments, joke skeletons on the walls, a red paper lantern. Six people are sitting around a table for a seance. But the table is situated over a graveyard, and pretty soon the participants' bodies are taken over by ghosts. Periodically we hear folk songs that seem to be coming from an ancient phonograph and sound lost, scratchy and faraway. When these are played, the participants stand, stop or wander the stage before the dead possess them again.

This is director Ed Baierlein's interpretation of the play created by Charles Aidman from Edgar Lee Masters's famed Spoon River Anthology, a long poem written in 1915 in which the dead inhabitants of a small Illinois town tell their stories in a series of short, charged monologues. We encounter a hanged murderer; the town drunk who is buried — ironically — beside the banker who scorned him; a woman who died in childbirth and the husband who impregnated her knowing that the pregnancy would snatch her life. There's the town judge. An attorney buried with his dog, Nig. The wife who drove this attorney from their home. A teacher speaking tenderly of a particular little boy she loved, and then the man that boy became, remembering his teacher: "I owe whatever I was in life/ To your hope that would not give me up/ To your love that saw me as still good." A malformed poet who "thirsted for love" was injured by cruel boys and tended to by a good-hearted doctor. But after she'd died in his care, the doctor was vilified by the townsfolk and lost everything he had. His wife's interpretation is different. There's an occasional peaceful marriage, but most of the couples we see loathed each other — including a wife who seems to have murdered her husband, and another who did away with two before the third poisoned her.

The ghosts reveal the myriad secrets beneath a small town's placid exterior, the corruption, the dreams never realized. They comment on their gravesites — there's a Jewish man buried by mistake in the Christian part of the cemetery — and on their headstones. One of the characters says that a marble boat with a furled sail represents his life: "For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment/Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid/Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the changes." He adds that he now knows that "we must lift the sail/ And catch the winds of destiny.../To put meaning in one's life may end in madness/But life without meaning is the torture/Of restlessness and vague desire/It is a boat longing for the sea... "

Leroy Leonard and Deborah Persoff in Spoon River Anthology.
Leroy Leonard and Deborah Persoff in Spoon River Anthology.

Though most of these people have led thwarted and unhappy lives, we do periodically hear something cheerful — from a stalwart woman who spent her time on earth in willing service to her family, for instance, and who, despite having lost several of her many children, died happy and fulfilled at the age of 96. Occasionally a couple of narratives relate to each other, but there's no real throughline, and you don't need to remember the individual speakers' stories. Ultimately, all of these stories meld into a tapestry that expresses both the realities of a particular time and place and larger truths about the human condition and the significance of an individual life.

The members of Baierlein's cast — Deborah Persoff, Michael Gunst, Lisa Mumpton, Leroy Leonard, Jennie MacDonald and Jim Miller — are Germinal regulars, and their mutual respect and understanding shows in their fine ensemble work. All of the actors give themselves to the piece with deep concentration and integrity, and each has gleaming, memorable moments. When they raise their voices together in song toward the end, it's both heart-lifting and fitting.

Spoon River Anthology is part of Germinal's final season in its current space. It will be followed by Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, with Baierlein himself as James Tyrone, in May, and a July production to be announced. This evening ends with a quotation from one of Edgar Lee Masters's poems that was used for his own epitaph: "There is no sweeter thing/Nor fate more blessed than to sleep. Here world/I pass you like an orange to a child/I can no more with you. Do what you will."

 
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