It's 1985 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, and the African-American neighborhood has seen better days.
Much better days.
So has King Hedley II, who after serving time for killing a man who disfigured him, has pinned his hopes for the future on a truckload of stolen refrigerators and a pie-in-the-sky plan to open a video store.
August Wilson's drama has the tone of a Shakespearean tragedy with passionate monologues and larger-than-life egos. At Seminole State College, director Anthony B. Major has let his cast make the most of Wilson's comical lines so that the play doesn't feel as grim as it could.
That tactic also makes the ending — a classic Shakespearean tragic twist — more of a surprise, less of a foregone conclusion.
Yet by letting the humorous moments shine through, Major makes these characters more real. People, after all, are funny in their quirks, their stubborn pride, their petty grudges, as Wilson well knew.
For those familiar with Wilson's 10-play Pittsburgh cycle, in which each play is set in a different decade of the 20th century, "King Hedley II" is a reunion of sorts. Characters from "Seven Guitars," set in the 1940s, return obviously older but not necessarily wiser.
For regular patrons of productions at Seminole State, which is staging all 10 plays, there are several familiar faces in the cast — all of the men have previously appeared in one or more of Seminole's Wilson plays.
Scenic designer Richard Harmon, also a Wilson vet, has created magnificently rundown houses, all crumbling brick and old cinderblocks. A missing chunk in a wall between gapes like the contentment missing from these characters' lives.
King (Michael Sapp) is a slave to his honor and woe to those he thinks have besmirched it, whether his employer or a clerk in the Sears photo department. Sapp's wound up tight, nearly bursting with anger at a world that let him down, though Wilson's words sometimes vanish in his shouting.
As his suffering wife, Tonya, Beatrice Roberts has a lovely dignity that shines through a haunting sadness over her choices — and mistakes.
Jami Thomas as King's mother, Joe Reed as her troublemaking erstwhile beau, and Dwayne Allen as an eccentric Bible-spouting neighbor all have the charm and skill to make their characters sharper than clichés.
Wilson was obvious in his writing for "King Hedley II": King plants flowers in a scraggly patch of dirt, hoping that something good can live and grow despite a harsh environment. And the playwright lets his characters go on a bit too long; their dialogue becomes repetitive.
Still, they draw you into their tortured lives. When Tonya sadly remarks that things should be better, you wish that were the case — for all these damaged souls.
'King Hedley II'
• What: A Seminole State College production of the August Wilson drama
• Length: 2:35, including intermission
• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 17
• Where: Seminole State College's Fine Arts Theatre, 100 Weldon Blvd., Sanford
• Tickets: $10, $8 students and seniors
• Call: 407-708-2040Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun