king hedley ii

‘King Hedley II’: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown…

Portland Playhouse's intense production seizes August Wilson's most despairing play

Vin Shambry and Peter Macon in “King Hedley II” at Portland Playhouse/Brud Giles

King Hedley II has a long, nasty scar running down the side of his face and a scowl across his brow that is just about as nasty and just about as long.  As played by Peter Macon in Portland Playhouse’s fierce version of “King Hedley II,” King’s shoulders are wide, his arms are thick and his mind takes strange leaps from tenderness to violence and back again. Sometimes he’s the model of reasonableness, and at others, especially when he’s brandishing a machete, he’s untouched by reason at all.

So, yes, life with King isn’t easy for his wife Tonya or mother Ruby or even his pal Mister. Not that he threatens them directly, but when a dark mood overcomes him and he takes off through the gate at the back of the house, it’s impossible to guess what mayhem he’s about to unleash. He’s a hard man to trust.

He has his reasons. August Wilson’s plays are great at experimenting with the human psyche under extreme pressure, a tension he generates by catching it between racism and poverty, systematically removing hope plot complication by plot complication. But “King Hedley II” is especially dark, and King himself on the edge of disaster for the entire play. There’s no compromise in King or the play, and as it begins the great Wilson matriarch, Aunt Ester, has died. Wilson plays don’t come any sadder.

And so, when the grace notes occur—the little glints of light, the good old stories, the flights that take us and the other characters away from this dismal reality—they feel like a sudden breath of fresh air. Just don’t get used to them.


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