Up in the hilltop cemetery, the dead are pondering how they spent their lives, and their thoughts, catching on the breeze, float down to the living.
Funny, shocking, disquieting and reassuring, their stories, as told in "Spoon River Anthology," have captivated a couple of generations of Los Angeles theatergoers. A 40th-anniversary revival at Theatre West assures that another generation is about to join them.
An adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters' poems, "Spoon River" was devised by Theatre West co-founder Charles Aidman and given its premiere by the company in 1962. The following year, the show traveled to Broadway and helped establish Los Angeles as a birthing place for important new plays.
Two original cast members, Betty Garrett and Joyce Van Patten, have directed the current production, and a third, Naomi Caryl, is musical director.
To resurrect the dead of a small Illinois town, the staging employs theater's simplest yet most potent magic. On an almost bare stage, four actors--Lee Meriwether, Bridget Hanley, Drew Katzman and Abbott Alexander--portray as many as 18 characters apiece. Aside from minor costume adjustments, the actors make their transformations entirely through variations of demeanor, voice and posture.
Interspersed among the stories are folk songs (some traditional, some written by Aidman and Caryl) performed by singer-guitarists Andy Taylor and Jane George.
The performances are uniformly excellent, but Meriwether (one-time Miss America and "Barnaby Jones" co-star) is particularly riveting. With a mischievous twinkle in her eyes, she is Dora Williams, wife to rich husbands who die under mysterious circumstances, while, suffused with selfless devotion, she is old-maid schoolteacher Emily Sparks, who urges a young charge toward greatness.
Hanley, meanwhile, is at once majestic and haggard as Margaret Fuller Slack, compelled by marriage and motherhood to give up her dream of becoming a writer. Alexander is chagrined as Archibald Higbie, who travels the world trying to rid himself of Spoon River, yet finds it's an inescapable part of who he is. And Katzman is transported with joy as Willie Metcalf, a boy of inauspicious beginnings who finds life's greatest treasure in the town's natural wonders.
The show's quiet wisdom is often reminiscent of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." Like that great play, "Spoon River" doesn't so much grab you by the lapels as quietly slip an arm around your waist and give you a gentle, reassuring squeeze.
"Spoon River Anthology," Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, L.A. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends June 23. $25. (323) 851-7977. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.