Remembering the Titans: Radio Golf and The Price
By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 26, 2007 3:35PM
As playwrights age, their work may increasingly confront how they, or anyone, will be remembered after death. Their passing will command respectful obituaries and festivals in tribute, but it’s also the moment when they relinquish all control of their legacy. What a terrifying thought for someone who’s made a living playing God!
This season, the Goodman and Shattered Globe pay tribute to Pulitzer Prize winners August Wilson (1945-2005) and Arthur Miller (1915-2005), respectfully, in productions that contemplate the march of time and embody the words of Eugene O’Neill: “There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again.”
Radio Golf, Goodman Theatre
August Wilson made his final revisions to this, the final installment in his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle a few months before his death. By the late 1990s, plans to gentrify his beloved Hill District were taking hold, an elegant but problematic close to the August Wilson century. Leading the plan for transformation is Bedford Hills Development, helmed by Harmond Wilks (Hassan El-Amin) and Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams). Their scheme may sound familiar: have the Federal government declare the Hill a blighted district, triggering Federal redevelopment funding that will help fund their slick new high-rise, complete with the neighborhood’s first Starbucks and Barnes & Noble.
The plan could make them heroically rich and serve as the stepping stone for Harmond, a mayoral candidate with a naïve faith in the law’s ability to solve society’s ills, and Roosevelt, who aspires to a career in radio that will leave him enough time to perfect his golf game. Harmond’s wife Mame (Michole Briana White) hitched her wagon to her husband’s star and is in line for a cushy government job. But the past, in the form of Hill lifers Old Joe Barlow (Anthony Chisholm) and Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks), hits Harmond and Roosevelt smack in the face, threatening the project’s success but forcing him to question the wisdom of destroying the neighborhood in order to save it.
Wilson’s script is not without its problems. By intermission, excessive pontificating had stalled the story. A few more judicious cuts would have tightened things up. And it seems Mr. Wilson was never completely comfortable writing for women. While Ms. White turned in a solid performance, Mame was largely relegated to the sidelines. But this show is a fitting coda. Wilson takes sides in the epic battle as glorified dick-swinging contest but doesn’t ask the same of his audience: to act would be tragic for some, to not act would be tragic for others. Quality of life and racial relations have improved by 1997, but these characters, like their play cycle forebearers, are still fighting for dignity and justice.
Director Kenny Leon’s splendid cast and David Gallo’s sprawling, suggestive set makes Wilson’s final opus sound and look fantastic. The supporting characters particularly won us over: Chisholm’s Old Joe, the show’s moral compas who dispenses grizzled street wisdom and poetic regrets, and Jelks’ Sterling, metamorphasizing from the easygoing neighbor to the fierce warrior threatening to shake Bedford’s vintage foundation to the ground.
The Price, Shattered Globe Theater
Manhattan in the ‘50s seems worlds away from The Hill, but Arthur Miller also understood the difficulty of reconciling the overwhelming promise and empty platitudes inspired by the American Dream. Victor Franz (Doug McDade) and his wife Esther (Linda Reiter) have returned home to sell his father’s estate, an attic stocked with antiques, to octogenarian dealer Gregory Solomon (Maury Cooper), an old family friend towing the line between kind chum and clever shyster. Solomon knew more about Victor’s father than he initially lets on and hence, places a bid lower than Victor expected. But Vic’s in the mood to deal until his estranged brother Walter (Don Blair) walks in.
From the start, Victor seems like an easy mark. His opening quarrel with Esther is an exercise in quiet psychological manipulation, at once an inquiry, battle, and confessional. He’s just past 50 and on the cusp of retirement, having abandoning aspirations of a scientific career to support a family reeling from the Depression, and settling the estate will dredge years of financial anxiety and sibling rivalry back to the surface.
Shattered Globe’s spot on production is a quiet, respectful ode to Mr. Miller, an excellent choice for a company driven by story and ensemble. The performances, as we’ve come to expect from these guys, are all solid. (Just watching Mr. Cooper devour a hard-boiled egg is fascinating.) Act I hums along, carefully stacking the blocks which in Act II will come crashing down. Watching the carnage becomes difficult not because of the actors, although a few more moments of restraint wouldn’t hurt, but because you’d probably want to leave the room if your friends slugged it out like this.
The Price isn’t an automatic draw for the under 30 crowd, judging by their Friday night crowd. But young playwrights could do well to see this production, as could anyone interested in looking beyond the hype of The Greatest Generation and The American Century.
Radio Golf plays at the Goodman Theater through February 25. Tickets are $20-68, more information at www.goodmantheater.org. The Price plays at Victory Gardens Greenhouse Theater through March 3. Tickets are $27-37 . More information at www.shatteredglobe.org
Radio Golf photo by Peter Wynn Thompson, Goodman Theatre
The Price photo by Janna Giacoppo, Shattered Globe