The actors at Provision Theater played fast and loose with mortality.Â After a lone violinist had paced the stage, musically bowing into our minds images of pensive frontiersmen and spectral shacks, the ten-member cast rose from the set pieces and populated the stage with a pageant of unquiet spirits. The actors played ghosts–some resentful, few blissful–each bringing his or her own comedy, travail, scandal, or wasting regret. They worked from Edgar Lee Masters’ seminal poetry cycle, “Spoon River Anthology,” written in 1915 and now adapted and directed by Provision’s Timothy Gregory. These murmuring men and women–singing in ensemble, chanting in unison, bouncing the speaking roles stages left and right–assumed identities of deceased residents from the titular and fictional nineteenth century Illinois boomtown. Spoon River’s inhabitants broke ranks and rushed forward, barking out details about their respective deaths, almost jutting into and crowding out the audience, wide-eyed and eager to announce their follies in sometimes sorrowful, but uniformly morbid monologues.
Though rooted in our seats, we kicked up ashes over the fallen gravestones of the uncertainly dead. A jittery townsman confronted us about the local bats and their erratic beauty, a disgraced newspaper potentate voiced the self-disgust and inward loathing he carried to the grave, a slandered doctor regretted his mistrial and pneumonic jail death. Each actor traveled through multiple personalities, each soul given its turn and allowed to speak its piece. The monologists were often joined by their fellow spirits. Sometimes the voices of several poems intersected as different actors voiced a main narrative’s quoted dialogue. Vaguely Greek choruses informed other stories, a gaggle of townspeople shrugged with horrifically comedic indifference at the empty potential of the town’s failed, Edison-esque machinist. Actors functioned as living props. An undiscovered murderer brutally reenacted the chloroform-assisted suffocation of a conveniently wealthy relative. Her unlit and stage-backwards struggles, her serving-bell’s faltering rings, the heavy thud as it slipped to the floor–it all lent an immediacy and shocking presence to a well-traveled, almost archetypal story.
The cast froze in a frenzy of readers clutching, grasping, and haggling for hot-off-the-press broadsheets as a socialite came on stage, twirling her parasol and weaving around the figures. She suggested her suicide in such a classily circuitous way that we only realized she had killed herself after the crowd exploded back into action. These tableaux vivants intensified the emotion of individual accounts. A local representative’s arrested politicking deepened the exclusion of the neglected, immigrant fraulein who illegitimately mothered him. As the scene resumed, it was painfully clear it was not the man’s sententious rhetoric that moved his mother to tears. She cried for the cover-up, for the fabricated illustrious bloodline her boy fed to the cheering voters below.
“Spoon River” was unified and not unpleasantly sentimentalized by the original score, composed and arranged by Michael Mahler and Alaric Jans. Solo violinist Alyssa Tong was a perpetual presence–punctuating scenes with thoughtfully low melodies, becoming a character in her own right as she fiddled away under the harvest moon, itself fittingly revealed as another wandering soul. The actors themselves furnished additional accompaniments: guitar, cello, tambourine. Impressive onstage vocals from Victoria Blade, Alex Weisman, and the rest of the cast in choir elevated what might have been a distressingly dark pastiche into sweet melancholy.
That melancholia underpinned every second of the show, as every light, romantic, or hilarious scene eventually wandered back to the grave. Even in monologues that never mentioned death, the fact that you were listening to the words of the departed undercut the warm-heartedness that might otherwise be found in a couple’s gooey meditations on their first-sight love. We smiled benignly at a little boy’s flustered search for the friend that shot a pop-cap slug beneath his finger, right up until the tiny wound infected into lockjaw. Ghostly choirs singing “This Little Light of Mine” in celebration of immortality were ferociously silenced by a jolting transition and savagely apoplectic screams from a soul who ultimately fell to his knees, exhaustedly requesting oblivion.
“Spoon River” leaves you feeling like the town’s atheist–ambushed by an unexpected spirituality, left raising fingers to lips in an unforgettable gesture of smirking half-wonder at something far beyond the theater. The production began as a kind of historical voyeurism–immersively narrating the private lives, doubts, and sorrows of a single town. It was sustained and reinforced by a busy cast of passionate shades. But by the finale, the adaptation had separated itself into two threads. The dramatic pensiveness evoked by the opening violin was made genuine,ÂÂ asking the audience to ponder the quality of their own lives and the unknowable looming beyond.
Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. Through June 16. Friday-Sunday, various times. $10-$32. (312)455-0066. provisiontheater.org