These days, death is a to-die-for growth industry. Somebody gets whacked by fate at the start of every episode of HBO's hugely popular Six Feet Under. And the Showtime series Dead Like Me is busy turning the job of the Grim Reaper -- once represented by a solitary cloaked apparition lugging an ungainly sickle -- into a hip afterlife-bonding activity, where you get to hang with fellow reapers. Of course, Edgar Lee Masters beat everyone to this subject about 90 years ago with his classic collection of free-verse poems, written in the voices of the dead themselves, titled Spoon River Anthology. Masters' capsulized corpse commentaries, many of them spiteful and mean-spirited, are now being brought to life, free, in area cemeteries by the Charenton Theater Company.
After a prolonged guitar intro, director Mindy Childress has the actors slowly approach the grave-studded stage from all sides, sending a chill up your spine even on a warm summer night. From there, the show hits some memorable high notes, but often suffers from the inherent choppiness and brevity of the script. Originally, Masters penned 244 different musings of the departed from a fictional town in Illinois called Spoon River. The monologues selected for this production center on such characters as married couples who lived to hate each other, an arsonist, and a secret murderer. Many of these characters are potentially fascinating, but since the show is only 90 minutes long and there are some 70 stories, just as you're getting involved with one bitch session, here comes another one.
Even so, there's a reason why Spoon River is immortal, and it's because Masters' rich language speaks so eloquently from beyond the grave. A laundress observes, "I never saw a dead face but what it looked like something washed and ironed." And a woman to her love: "How bravely you struggled to live a remembered rapture." Epigrams and epitaphs fly fast and furious, as Edgar Lee flits from one stiff to another, revealing the deep despair of dreams unfulfilled and, occasionally, the glorious memories of a rich life lived to the brim.
Several of Charenton's 15 actors are adept at capturing this resonance. Meg Santisi is hauntingly affecting in her scenes, as is the versatile and vivacious Victoria Karnafel Korkosz. Tim Keo and Andrew Narten shift agilely among disparate characters, and Meg Chamberlain lights up the night. However, other performers are less successful, with Dennis Runkle opting for uniform actorly intonations instead of characterizations, and Lynna Metrisin pushing too hard.
Spoon River continues Charenton's splendid tradition of taking free summer theater into local Cleveland neighborhoods and, in this case, to our oft-forgotten but frequently lovely burial grounds. Bring a blanket and cozy up next to a headstone for a trip into the land of the dead. It's a pretty lively place.