For a show about the dead, “The Spoon River Project” is very much alive.
In a span of 80 minutes, passion, joy, regret, sorrow, rage and love are expressed by the play’s nearly 50 characters — all of whom have come back from the dead to share the secrets they’ve taken with them to the grave.
Set in the Green-Wood Cemetery, director Tom Andolora couldn’t have been more inspired when he picked a location for his adaptation of 47 of Edgar Lee Masters’s poetic monologues recited by the deceased inhabitants of the fictional Midwestern town of Spoon River.
After a 10-minute trolley ride into the thick of the Sunset Park graveyard, you arrive at the “stage” — a plot of green surrounded by white tombstones, a Civil War-era mausoleum looming in the background.
With no fanfare, the play begins as the 11 actors slowly descend from a hill, silhouetted against the darkening sky; it’s enough to give you goosebumps. They carry lanterns and sport early 19th-century garb — the ladies in full skirts and decorative hats, the men looking like someone you’d find serving a drink at Henry Public. Other than some strong costuming, it’s pretty bare-bones stuff, with inevitable comparisons drawn to “Our Town.”
Thorton Wilder’s classic was never this eerie, though. Through the characters’ chants, you learn of their unfortunate demises, brought on by fever, childbirth, a broken heart, before they break into a hymn, “Softly and Tenderly,” their strong, harmonized voices accompanied by live strings.
Then, one by one, they are summoned forward to share their sad stories — one a failed inventor whose supposed genius was a sham, another an alcoholic who died of liver failure, and not, as his unsuspecting townsmen assumed, “eating watermelon.” Among the bunch, there boasts adulterers, murderers, divorcees, mistresses, spinsters — Spoon River was quite the soap opera.
Among all this gloom, the play’s not without its light-hearted moments: at one point, a woman who, after bearing nine children never found the time to write her novel, warns, “Sex is the curse of life!” to several laughs.
It’s a strong play, and not on the immersive setting alone — the talented cast convincingly takes on multiple, diverse roles, making for powerful, lingering performances, even if they only span a minute. Still, thanks to its location, the play’s profundity is not lost, as, after the last character has spoken his peace, the dead return whence they came, burdened still by their guilt or sorrow, and you board the trolley, back to the land of the living.
“The Spoon River Project” at Green-Wood Cemetery [Fifth Avenue and 25th Street in Sunset Park, (718) 768-7300], now through June 26. Tickets $25 ($20 in advance). For info, visit www.green-wood.com.