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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Heartfelt Radio Golf
at Seattle Repertory Theatre

Radio Golf
John Earl Jelks, Anthony Chisholm
and Rocky Carroll

I think it is quite likely that, more than any other regional theatre company, Seattle Repertory Theatre will most keenly mourn the passing of playwright and Seattle resident August Wilson, whose body of work has long been a fixture of the company. Wilson’s final play Radio Golf is lighter and leaner than many of his works, and receives a heartfelt, spirited staging at the Rep under the confident and nuanced direction of frequent Wilson collaborator Kenny Leon.

Wilson’s ultimate visit to Pittsburgh’s Hill District is as much about the neighborhood as the people who live in it. Set in 1997, its central character Harmond Wilks is a prosperous realtor with a clear shot at becoming Pittsburgh’s first African-American mayor when his dream of an upscale urban redevelopment is threatened by the claims of the wily old Elder Joseph Barlow, whose rundown little old house lies smack in the middle of the Bedford Hills project. Though Harmond at first feels confident that the house was legally purchased after Barlow fell behind on taxes, he comes by information that proves otherwise and also discovers a family tie he had not been aware of. Harmond, a decent man despite his ambitions, is forced to choose whether to do the right thing morally or go for the gravy train.

Radio Golf is notable for capturing a lighter tone and having more of a sense if humor than many previous Wilson scripts, with some jabs at Starbucks being particularly amusing to the Seattle audience. Director Kenny Leon has a keen sense of the kind of characters Wilson writes (not surprising, since he directed the acclaimed Broadway version of Wilson’s penultimate play Gem of the Ocean, which has many ties to this final work) and has rounded up a rich ensemble cast to portray them. Rocky Carroll gives a multi-layered, sharply focused performance as the troubled Harmond Wilks. Anthony Chisholm, who previously scored at the Rep in Wilson’s Two Trains Running, owns every moment he has on the stage as the foxy and surprisingly complex Elder Joseph Barlow. James A. Williams as Harmond’s hungrily ambitious business partner (and host of the Radio Golf program from which the play takes its title) Roosevelt Hicks plays his comic and dark moments out with equal bravura, and John Earl Jelks is warmly likable as the plain spoken but strong handyman Sterling Johnson.  As Harmond’s loving but conflicted wife Mame, Denise Burse does able work with the play’s only poorly developed and almost unnecessary role.

David Gallo’s breathtakingly realized set depicts Harmond’s political office as a remodeled storefront surrounded on each side and above by the decaying remnants of once prosperous Hill District businesses, such as a diner and a barber shop. Donald Holder’s lighting aptly sets off the contrasts between the past and the present, and Susan Hilferty’s costumes illustrate each character’s personality to good effect.

It now only remains for the Rep to give us a staging of the reportedly amazing Gem of the Ocean to complete the Wilson cycle for Seattle audiences. Meantime, Radio Golf is a rich production of a rock solid play by one of the modern theatre’s most impassioned and dedicated storytellers.

Radio Golf runs through February 18 at Seattle Repertory Theatre’s Bagley Wright main-stage, 155 Mercer St. in Seattle center. For more information, visit the Rep on-line at www.seattlerep.org.

Photo: © 2006 Chris Bennion



- David-Edward Hughes



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