The Women of Spoon River: Their Voices from the Hill
nytheatre.com review by Di Jayawickrema
August 10, 2012
Of the 244 characters in Edgar Lee Masters' collection of epitaph poems Spoon River Anthology, there are very few women. Lee Meriwether noted this when the Anthology was adapted for the stage in 1962 and she was an understudy for one of the only three female roles. Several decades later, Meriwether, now a veteran actress of film, television and stage, adapted The Women of Spoon River: Their Voices from the Hill to bring nearly all of the women out of the shadows. "Life is too strong," is the sunny declaration of the first of the twenty-five women Meriwether brings to life in a series of stunning dramatic pirouettes. So are the women's "voices sleeping on the hill," which defy both death and the conventions of the 19th century small town they lived in.
There is no town of Spoon River although there is a river of that name that still runs near Edgar Lee Masters' hometown on which the collection is based. "The hill" is the local cemetery that forms the stage for the departed souls of fictional Spoon River to tell the true story of their town that they couldn't tell in life. Almost all of the handful of female characters bear the bitter traces of a tasking existence in a cramped community, but very few are undone by it. From all walks of life and every shade of temperament, all the women have something to say about the loves, losses and victories of their lives.
Meriwether, a former Miss America best known for her award-winning turn in the hit TV series Barnaby Jones, only has a few minutes each to give voice to these insistent characters. Armed with little other than her agelessly lovely, mobile face and a few well-chosen props, Meriwether morphs from a simpering girl to stately lady, a murderous prostitute to an unhinged farmer's wife, in a skillful display of theatrical sleight of hand.
Under Jim Hesselman's deft direction, Meriwether is a grizzled laundress telling the sordid story of the town's upper crust in soiled garments, claiming "there are stains that foil soap." She gives a gleeful kick in the air that is transformed into the reeling of the town drunk, who woefully begs the audience understand how she was brought so low. Some of the tales are sad, some funny, many subversive, and all defy the epitaph carved on the tombstone of a particularly merry widow—"Implora Eterna Quiete." None of these ladies seem inclined to go quietly to their rest and we're the luckier for it.