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Yale Rep's Risk-Taking 'Seven Guitars' Hypnotic

I've become wary of productions of August Wilson plays that last less than two and a half hours. This singular playwright's words need room to breathe. The music needs to rise up organically. The plot needs to unfurl gradually, lest it seem forced or melodramatic.

Timothy Douglas' hypnotic, risk-taking and revelatory new production of "Seven Guitars" is nearly three hours long. That's just the right amount of time for it to feel natural and lived-in. It's also long enough that key events in the story circle around just as you've let them slip from your mind, making for maximum suspense. This is a show of meditative beauty as well as sharp, decisive action.

When Hartford Stage presented Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" last month — in a production that was just as comfortably paced—it used a sprawling multiroom house setting. I'd argue such an ultra-realistic detail serves that play well, letting the piano of the play's title stand out from the drab surroundings as a thing of rare beauty.

The thing of value in "Seven Guitars" is a song, by a young bluesman named Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton. A recording of this downcast break-up song with the upbeat title "That's All Right" has gained some popularity. The ethereal nature of the musician's fame allows director Douglas to add abstraction to the staging of "Seven Guitars." Dwight Andrews, who was the music director and composer for the original productions of many of Wilson's plays (most of them at Yale Rep) distorts blues chords and melodies into a sinuous soundtrack.

Wilson's stage directions for the beginning of the play suggest that the characters have "gathered in the yard," having "just come from the cemetery." What we see at the Rep, thanks to scenic designer Fufan Zhang, is six chairs on an otherwise empty platform high up at the back of the stage. The actors speak their lines directly to the audience. Though they're conversing, they don't look at each other.

Later in the same play, these same people laugh, cavort and interact more intimately. The first act is set in and around the backyard of a house in Pittsburgh in 1948, but it has the feel of a long night in a blues club or a juke joint. Floyd Barton and his cronies Canewell and Red Carter recite nonsense verses, show off their urban weaponry and share their struggles and dreams. They complain about having been jailed in the past for the crimes of "laziness" and "worthlessness."

Billy Eugene Jones plays Barton with the mix of winning humor, self-absorption and off-kilter sex appeal that distinguishes some of the great Wilson actors, including Charles S. Dutton and James Earl Jones. Wayne T. Carr understands how to underplay Canewell, a great example of an essential Wilson character: the loyal friend and sidekick. As Red Carter, Danny Johnson adds a brash energy that brings a vaudevillian spark to the banter.

The three strong women who put up with these proud men — the quietly alluring Rachel Leslie as Floyd's semi-estranged girlfriend Vera, Stephanie Berry as Vera's frank and sensible friend Louise and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy as the young interloper Ruby — prepare meals, walk up and down stairs and talk about bad relationships.

An odd old man named Hedley (legendary musical theater star Andre De Shields) wanders in and out of scenes as if in a dream, sometimes reacting to the comments of others but just as often in his own world.

As an ensemble, this diverse and multidimensional septet bickers, dances, dresses up, plays cards, makes music, flirts, threatens, gets drunk and goofs around.

After the wild party of a first act, the second act is a sort of hangover, a reckoning in which the characters wake up to their realities, and try to figure out where to go next.

This all plays out on a sparse stage of dirt and metal. In this wide empty space, the character's monologues can sound positively Shakespearean. Hedley's speech "The black man is not a dog" is as riveting as Shylock's "Hath a Jew not eyes?" from "Merchant of Venice," and Floyd Barton's "I am going to Chicago" declaration is his own personal "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" a la Macbeth.

This is the first professional production of a Wilson play in Connecticut to be done with such a non-realistic setting. Yet, on another level, the style may seem familiar to those who first saw Wilson's plays as staged readings at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford. There's austerity there. And clarity. And righteousness.

The premieres of most of August Wilson's plays were at the Yale Rep. Now the theater, by not treating his wondrous works as historical relics, is helping shape his legacy.

SEVEN GUITARS by August Wilson, directed by Timothy Douglas, plays though Dec. 17 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. $44 to $88. 203-432-1234,

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