at the Heartland Cafe

Graceland Cemetery is a great place to get calm. Visiting the democratic dead in their Victorian mausoleums or contemporary crypts puts all your problems into perspective; it’s hard to get worked up over the mayoral election or even the mindlessly evil Persian Gulf crisis when you stare at eternity. In the presence of so much absence, your mind quiets down like a woods at sunset.

But if you credit the free-verse poems in Edgar Lee Masters’s poignant Spoon River Anthology (1915) and New Spoon River (1924), the dead aren’t silent; their serenity is spurious. As if to prove there’s no statute of limitations on misery, the ex-living–here residents of a small town downstate–still seethe with secret sins, uncompleted revenges, concealed crimes, and lifelong obsessions. Masters’s group portrait inventories human waste–monotonous lives, stunted talents, desperate suicides, petty intrigues, and frustrated ideals–and all this resentment is boiling just six feet below our own anxieties.

True, some of these 250 “auto-epitaphs” contain scattered expressions of gratitude for life’s gift, ironically delivered by overworked women and mistreated children. Lucinda Matlock, a spunky old woman who died at 96 because she “had lived enough,” looks with scorn on the “anger, discontent and drooping hopes” of “degenerate sons and daughters”; she knows “it takes life to love life.” Fiddler Jones’s epitaph tells of a life spent making music for others, ending with “forty acres . . . a broken fiddle . . . And not a single regret.”

But on the whole, if this graveyard could talk, it would scream. Petit, the Poet (who’s not part of this show) describes the futility of his career as the town’s prettifying versifier, who had to turn his back on the real life of the place and devote himself to “little iambics, / While Homer and Whitman roared in the pines!”

Many of the bulletins from beyond offer chilling tales. An heiress is mistreated by her husband when her family loses its wealth, a doctor disgraced when he botches the abortion of the village poetess. A boy who ran off to join the Army rather than go to jail for stealing pigs dies in battle without knowing why. Other tales demonstrate a heavy poetic justice: the town’s editor, who delighted in libelous scandalmongering, is buried near the town’s sewage disposal.

Rather than ridicule a small town’s small-mindedness in the present tense, as Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson did, Masters created a vicious afterlife full of rancid gossip and internecine warfare. (Masters was a Chicago lawyer, the partner of Clarence Darrow, and he saw a lot of contention in his time.) Many portraits are interrelated and build on each other; the histories of 19 families can be reconstructed from these one-by- one confessions.

Spoon River Anthology: Revisited is a show for the heartland, playing the Heartland Cafe–a cozy, candlelit, incense-scented room with a molded-tin ceiling and walls decorated with counterculture posters. For this staging, enriched by a country fiddle played impressively by someone named Chico, adapter and director Fred Anzevino has chosen some 70 epitaphs, favoring the more upbeat and life-affirming ones. But enough of the cemetery comes through to do the anthology justice. It’s a loving testament to Spoon River’s lost souls.

Still, not everything here works; the attempt to depict five children who died in their first hour of life, with the grown-up five-member cast simpering unbecomingly like tots, is cloying and oppressively jaunty. But the cast’s intensity comes through in the anthology’s opening, a litany of all the former enemies and lovers now “sleeping on the hill.”

Though the actors lack range, they bring depth to most of Masters’s moments. Farrel Wilson feelingly enacts old Hannah Armstrong’s heartbreaking visit to President Lincoln (her former boarder in Menard) to ask him to write a letter to save her soldier son. Cheryl Golemo specializes in radiant resignation–a girl’s unquestioning delight in being loved, or a German peasant’s thwarted pride in her illegitimate son, a famous judge she may not acknowledge in public.

With a velvet voice that dignifies all it delivers, Lucy Hunter Poland can range from the pathos of an actress abandoned in New York to the trustworthiness of Edith Bell, the Spoon River telephone operator who knew–and kept–all the town’s secrets. Gregg Zorn does well as a homeless kid who teems with pantheistic passions and a venal nephew who kills his rich aunt with chloroform, but is less convincing as the kid who ran off to the Army and an early death. (They put “Pro Patria” on his tomb, but he doesn’t know what it means.)

Finally, Matt Yde sounds a strong Thoreauvian note as Griffy the Cooper, a plainspoken artisan who urges the living not to get trapped in the tubs of conformity; and he breathes fire into the posthumous lament of the Village Atheist, the tubercular “infidel” who learned that “Immortality is an achievement / And only those who strive mightily / Shall possess it.”

That’s something to ponder on your next visit to Graceland Cemetery.