A haunting ride along Spoon River

Shakespeare Society's dark insights into life and death

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • April 5, 2012

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Johnny Quinones took the role of an axe murderer.
Johnny Quinones took the role of an axe murderer.

A girl stands alone on stage in a plain black dress. Trembling, she tells of her rape at the age of eight and how her husband, after two years of marriage, felt “cheated” when he discovered the truth. Her voice cracks as she mourns her husband’s desertion, her village’s gossip, and her untimely death, all due to forces beyond her control.

Shakespeare Society’s production of Spoon River, which ran last weekend in the Piano Row Multipurpose Room, held spectators spellbound with a series of monologues that form a haunting commentary on small town life.

Spoon River is an adaptation of poet Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a collection of free verse poems originally published in 1915. Each of the 244 poems is told as an epitaph from the perspective of a different deceased character from the fictional town of Spoon River, Ill. The townsfolk relive personal tragedies, express regrets, and reflect on their lives from the grave. Their stories combine to form a chilling but surprisingly hopeful portrait of human life.

The Shakespeare Society’s interpretation of Spoon River, consisting of selected poems from the original text of the anthology, emphasized the drama’s unapologetic frankness and intimate nature. 

The cast of five had to play a host of roles, and moved seamlessly from one character to the next. Sophomore performing arts major Margaret Clark, for example, delivered the chilling account of childhood rape alongside a funny anecdote from the perspective of a judge ridiculed for his short stature.

“It was difficult at first getting a hold on the wide range of characters I had,” cast member Johnny Quinones said in an interview. 

In one of the play’s darkest sequences, the junior visual media arts major portrayed a man who murders his pregnant wife with an axe, throwing down a crimson ribbon to signify the crime.

Among the roles played by sophomore performing arts major Sarah Innes was Dora Williams, who recounts her numerous wealthy husbands and the mysterious circumstances of their deaths. Innes stood on the stage alone while the rest of the cast stood behind the set’s burlap curtain, their silhouettes falling one by one as she rattled off her list of dead lovers.

Spoon River is at times a painful and bleak production. In one monologue, for example, Chinese immigrant Yee Bow (Margaret Clark) laments the loss of her cultural identity when the Spoon River Sunday school “tried to get [her] to drop Confucius for Jesus,” and recounts her own murder with gruesome detail. 

“For without any warning, as if it were a prank/ And sneaking up behind me, Harry Wiley/ The minister’s son, caved my ribs into my lungs/ With a blow of his fist,” she says in one of the play’s most violent moments.

In another monologue, young mother Elizabeth Childers (Innes) who died in childbirth grieves for the loss her dead baby. Innes’s performance conveyed a sense of deep despair as she kneeled at the center of the stage, concluding, “Death is better than Life!”

Spoon River’s wide spectrum of human experiences builds and showcases a connectedness among diverse people.

“The play really speaks about things that everyone can at least sympathize with, if not empathize with,” Alex Rankine said in an interview. 

Despite the play’s outlook, it’s not all so dark. Lucinda Matlock (Innes), a happy woman who died at the age of 96, appears at the end to offer her own ruminations on life, scolding the other characters for their discontentment. 

“It takes life to love Life,” she explains.

According to director Tanya Flink, a junior theatre studies and political communication double major, the message of the play is ultimately redeeming.

“I encourage the readers to read the anthology,” Flink said, “and keep in mind that it is not about death, it’s about life.”