For the seven characters of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” emotions flare up and burn through the night like hot riffs from a blues guitar.
Written as part of Wilson’s Century Cycle — 10 plays exploring African-American experience, one for each decade of the 20th century — “Guitars” dramatizes a few fateful days in the life of a bluesman in the Hill District of the playwright’s native Pittsburgh.
Kent Gash’s insightful production for the Marin Theatre Company makes those days an incendiary portrait of dreams deferred during the post-World War II, pre-civil rights era.
It’s 1948, and guitarist Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton has just come home from Chicago. The Windy City is a beacon for gifted musicians looking to escape poverty and racism, and Floyd has already scored a minor hit there. Now he’s ready to return for a major record deal — this time, accompanied by his love-struck but wary girlfriend, Vera.
As Floyd’s fantasies of fame and fortune shimmer with a seductive glow, Wilson shades the drama with grimmer realities.
Floyd and his bandmates — Canewell, a harmonica player, and Red, the drummer — have all done jail time on bogus charges; each has known lives cut short by violence.
Jealousy inflames every scene, and the women — sensitive Vera, older-and-wiser Louise, and young Ruby, who arrives from Alabama with a deep secret — hope against hope for men they can count on.
Hedley, the senior member of the community, scrapes by on the money he makes raising chickens, but his battles with illness and scars reaching back to childhood fuel the play’s crucial turning point.
Between moments of strife, the characters find joy. Dancing, drinking, playing cards and listening to a Joe Louis prizefight on the radio, they create a vibrant picture of life with limited options. Music is the common thread, in impromptu jam sessions and preparations for a gig at Pittsburgh’s top blues club.
Gash stages the three-hour production in a seamless flow of scenes aided by J.B. Wilson’s backyard set, Kurt Landisman’s atmospheric lighting and Callie Floor’s stylish costumes. Music direction, by legendary blues artist Linda Tillery, plays a central role.
Tobie Windham is outstanding as the flamboyant Floyd. Omoze Idehenre gives Vera a tender, soulful edge. Margo Hall is a wry, sharp-tongued Louise. Charles Branklyn’s Hedley, L. Peter Callender’s Red, Marc Damon Johnson’s Canewell and Shinelle Azoroh’s Ruby make essential contributions.
It’s a brilliant ensemble, but Wilson’s “Guitars” demands nothing less. He wrote the blues like a 20th century Shakespeare, and Marin’s cast makes every word sing.
Where: Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 4
Tickets: $34 to $55
Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org