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Chicago by John Olson

Magnolia
Goodman Theatre

Magnolia
John Earl Jelks, Annette O'Toole, and Carrie Coon
When an American hears the word "plantation,” what comes to mind? An estate in 19th century Russia or Gone with the Wind's Tara? If there were ever a legitimate classic to update, Chekov's Cherry Orchard would seem to be it. Playwright Regina Taylor has taken Chekov's story of the end of Russia's aristocracy and transposed it to Atlanta, Georgia in 1963, when a similar sea change was occurring in American society as segments of the black community were gaining real economic clout and beginning to exercise political power as well. Whereas in Cherry Orchard a former serf takes over the plantation on which he had served, Magnolia concerns a black man whose family had served an aristocratic white family for generations, but who has become wealthier and more powerful than his former employers. Adding the element of race as well as class raises the stakes, particularly for an American audience familiar with our tangled history of race relations.

It may not have been Ms. Taylor's intention to create Magnolia as a study guide for Cherry Orchard, but it works on that level. Those already familiar with Chekov's play may find it hard not to be a bit distracted by that, as the playwright quite directly lifts the characters and their relationships to each other from the classic. It's less apparent early in the piece, when the characters – half of them black and half white and separated in the story by geographic and social segregation – are mostly shown in separate scenes and settings. The blacks are in a place called Black Pearl's while the whites congregate at Kerry's Restaurant. As the characters are introduced, we learn they all have lived on the Magnolia Estate, a former plantation that is about to be sold at auction. The fidelity to Cherry Orchard becomes most obvious in the final scene at the plantation, a birthday party in which the blacks and whites who have lived at Magnolia are all together.

The counterparts to Cherry Orchard's Madame Ranevskaya and her brother Gayev, the last eldest remaining members of the Magnolia Estate's owning family, are Lily and Beau. Lily is played by film and TV actress Annette O'Toole as an eccentric free-spirit. Lily has a deep love for her ancestral home, and though she had run away from Atlanta and the white upper class to Paris, she remains deeply attached to the Plantation. Ms. O'Toole captures these contradictions perfectly and creates a fascinating character. The wealthy businessman is Thomas, played by John Earl Jelks (of Broadway's Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf) with a presence that goes toe to toe with Ms. O'Toole's star power. Thomas is as fascinating a character as his Cherry Orchard counterpart Lopakhin. Though resentful over his brother's lynching from one of the trees in the plantation's magnolia grove, he bears no ill will toward the remaining family members. And, while perfectly content to live his life within Atlanta's segregated black community, he has no problem with profiting from "white flight” by selling suburban real estate to whites leaving the neighborhoods into which blacks have begun to move.

Taylor's homage to Chekov is fair enough. Is there a better play dealing with dramatic societal changes than Cherry Orchard? And haven't there been and won't there be many such periods in world history? Ms. Taylor has acknowledged the master directly while transporting the situation and the general traits of his characters to a time that has more direct resonance for today's audiences. Like Chekov, Magnolia is more about character than plot and it also has a Chekovian talkiness, which is doubly challenging to the audience given the deep southern accents used by the actors. Director Anna D. Shapiro (of August: Osage County) keeps the performers stationary in the early scenes, so those scenes require some work on the part of the audience to get through the accents and receive the information being presented. Still, Ms. Shapiro gets some terrific performances from her cast of 12. Roxanne Reese as Carlotta, counterpart to Cherry Orchard's governess Charlotte, is a particular delight as the former actress and singer who lost roles in Gone with the Wind to both Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniel. "Who says Mammy has to be fat?," the slight-framed Carlotta asks. "That Oscar could have been mine."

When Maya, the waitress at Black Pearl's, asks Thomas for his order, "The usual, Mr. Thomas?" He replies, "Who can say, these days?" But though Magnolia is concerned with societal change, it shows an awe for the power of the past as well. The increasingly militant young man Meshach (Tory O. Davis) boasts to Thomas "I don't belong to the past." Thomas retorts, "Only a fool could say that." For both the white and the blacks of this play, for good or for bad, the past will always be with them.

Magnolia will be performed through April 19th at the Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. Tickets are $25-$70.00 and may be purchased online at GoodmanTheatre.org, at the box office, or by phone at 312-443-3800.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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