Spoon River Anthology @ St. Sebastian Players

You know how there are those theatre companies that nest in musty basements of churches with mismatched folding chairs for seating and the public bathrooms can be found stage left?

St. Sebastian Players is one of those theatre companies. It’s simple, functional and full of spirit. The folks here obviously love putting on a show.

Friday I made my second trip to St. Sebastian, as they enter their impressive 29th season.

I quite enjoyed their production of The Real Thing last season (read that review here). The tight, mature acting of that emotionally dense play really made me want to come back and see what this company had to offer next.

Edgar Lee Masters
Edgar Lee Masters

Spoon River Anthology originally began as a series of fragmented stories and narratives compiled and adapted by Edgar Lee Masters. Published in 1914, the stories were based on the rural Illinois life Masters grew up in, with various townsfolk openly discussing desires, gossip, sorrows, secrets and revenges. While the physical town of Spoon River is a fabrication, most of the events and characters can be linked to Lewistown and Petersburg, Illinois.

Director Jonathan Hagloch has created an entirely new adaptation of Spoon River Anthology for St. Sebastian, as the current published stage script, he notes, is “scattered” and “disconnected.”

I admired the craft and affection that went into this adaptation, but had a few reservations.

While Hagloch may have worked tirelessly in organizing the stories into themes (such as “Childbirth,” “Love & Deceit” and a section devoted to Lincoln), I’m not entirely sure these touching, yet slight, stories really make for a compelling two hours of entertainment. There’s not much dramatic shape here. And with the actors anchored to their “gravestone” on the proverbial hill to deliver their numerous monologues, it felt a bit like a live version of a multi-media presentation you’d see at a museum. The cast of ten is diverse and engaging, and each one does a good job representing Masters’ colorful characters, but I  felt the most skilled storytellers were strangely given the least to do.

However, a major highlight in this adaptation is the use of traditional music, as well as new tunes by Hagloch, which lends a sweet sincerity to the proceedings. And while the cast seemed to need a few extra music rehearsals, the rough quality in their singing added to the charm. Joel Schuman and John Oster provided fine accompaniment on mandolin and guitar, respectively.

Those that get a kick out of rural American history will most surely enjoy this appealing production. It’s a rare and pleasant glimpse into the hearts and minds of our forefathers.

Spoon River Anthology plays through November 15 at St. Sebastian Players, located at St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W Diversey Parkway, Chicago, Ill. For more information, visit ‎ saintsebastianplayers.org

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