"Judge Somers - How does it happen .. that I who was the most erudite of lawyers ... lie here unmarked, forgotten, while Chase Henry, the town drunkard has a marble block .."¹
"Amanda Barker - Henry got me with child, knowing that I could not bring forth life without losing my own ..."¹
The first song corresponds to the first introductory poem in the anthology, setting to music the words of "The Hill": "We are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charles; The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter .. We are Ella, Kate, Mag, Lizzie and Edith; The tender heart, the simple soul, the loud, the proud, the happy one ... all, are asleep on the hill ..."¹
You have Tom Merritt who was shot to death by his wife's 19-year-old lover who "aimed and fired at my heart"¹, while Mrs. Merritt (note that she doesn't even warrant a first name!) was sentenced to 30 years and died in prison–"And the iron gates of Joliet swing as the gray and silent trusties carried me out in a coffin."¹
Ollie McGee who moans that "my husband .. robbed my youth and my beauty ... in death .. I am avenged"¹, followed by Fletcher McGee lamenting "she died and haunted me and hunted me for life."¹ Throughout this counterpoint, Ollie wears a ghostly white sheet over her head, which she occasionally lifts to display a ghoulish grin.
And then there is the marital discord between Benjamin Pantier and Mrs. Benjamin Pantier (again no first name!). She "drove him away from home to live with his dog in a dingy room back of his office"¹. He stands there cradling his beloved dog Nig in a swaddling cloth like a baby, describing Nig as his "constant companion, solace and friend .. partner, bed-fellow; comrade in drink."¹
Another example of inspired staging involves the creative uses of a wooden ladder. In a scene about arsonist Silas Dement, the ladder is propped up against another actor as Silas climbs upward to gain access to the place he wants to torch. Next the ladder is placed on the ground and a group of firemen "climb" it to reach the fire. In another scene, the ladder is placed in front of a convict and the rungs of the ladder become his prison bars.
The best use of the ladder occurs during the eerie and hauntingly beautiful song sung by Mrs. Sibbley, who commits suicide by stepping in front of a train. As she stands on the "railway tracks", she sings of "My secret: under a mound that you shall never find".¹ The mood and tension is ratcheted by the lighting and sound effects of the oncoming locomotive. At the point of impact, which corresponds to the crescendo of her aria, red rose petals fall from the ceiling, symbolizing the splatter of her blood. The entire scene was breathtaking!
One of the funniest epitaphs is by A.D.Blood, strict and moralistic past mayor who complains "If you think my work is good, who closed saloons and stopped all playing at cards, why do you let the miller's daughter and worthless son of Benjamin Pantier nightly make my grave their unholy pillow?"¹ Edgar Masters had a great sense of humour!
This was a very unique but entertaining show, taken from a very unusual and interesting set of poems. After watching so much theatre, it is wonderful to stumble on something truly different and innovative.
¹ Quotes from Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters