Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 8, 2007
Radio Golf by August Wilson. Directed by Kenny Leon. Scenic design by David Gallo. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Music composed and arranged by Dan Moses Schreier. Cast: Harry Lennix, Tonya Pinkins, Anthony Chisholm, John Earl Jelks, and introducing James A. Williams as Roosevelt Hicks.
While the same is true of this 10th and final installment, Radio Golf is not likely to be short-listed among the playwright's best. But the new production of it at the Cort proves that this play, which Wilson completed shortly before his death in 2005, is nonetheless a worthy and indelible part of Wilson's immense theatrical achievement.
Set in 1997, Radio Golf ties together many of the themes and characters that have played critical roles throughout the cycle, with Gem of the Ocean - the earliest in the chronology (set in 1904) but the ninth written - playing a particularly important role. If you've not seen that play, or if you're otherwise unfamiliar with Wilson's oeuvre, you might find that even this production's fine director (Kenny Leon) and the generally solid cast aren't sufficient to sell this one, which is rich on ideas but rather lacking context. But even its rough patches and rougher edges never make you feel you're seeing either a wholly incomplete work or, ultimately, an unfinished saga. And the series in toto is richer for the individual sacrifices Radio Golf makes.
Much the same is true of the play's central character, Harmond Wilks (Harry Lennix), an urban redeveloper running for mayor of Pittsburgh with hopes of taking it into the future, but who can't escape his own past. That past is represented, as so often in Wilson's plays, by the ancient Aunt Ester, who was born when blacks were first brought to the United States in chains and who died in the 1980s (her death rippled through that decade's chapter, King Hedley II). Her house, though, still stands at 1839 Wiley Avenue in the town's Hill District as a reminder of nearly 400 years of slavery, torment, and only intermittent progress.
More literally, the house stands in the way of Harmond's plans for revitalizing the District: with a skyscraping new complex of shops and apartments. Though Harmond believes he's bought the house and is free to demolish it, the house's self-proclaimed owner, Elder Joseph Barlow (Anthony Chisholm), is not willing to let it go so easily. The ensuing tug-of-war even casts serious doubt on whether Harmond knows himself or his family, and whether he's fit to govern this community at all.
The danger of such uncertainty is key here, seasoning and straining Harmond's relationships with his wife and campaign manager Mame (Tonya Pinkins) and his golf-obsessed business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), who's searching for his own way up to the top of the ladder with a questionable deal at a local radio station. How much of themselves these people are willing to give up for a shot at the mythical American dream remains the comestible core of this final course in Wilson's dramatic feast.
What's missing are many of the shadings and the lyricism that have always defined Wilson's writing. Leon's experience as a Wilson interpreter serves the production well, and his staging efficiently ties the foggy past to the looming future. Scenic design, David Gallo's makeshift-oasis office set, translates this visually, providing an almost-but-not-quite respite from the poverty quite literally surrounding it on all sides. But they can't disguise that this is Wilson's least overtly musical play, one that attempts to find in the halting cadences of modern speech employed by Harmond, Mame, and Roosevelt the sound of ordinary people.
Roosevelt, his name notwithstanding, is the least inherently political, and is caught between common-man and middle-class concerns in a place that allows him to be (and sound) the most real. Williams's energetic, no-holds-barred portrayal of a man who will give up anything for his shot at success highlight's Roosevelt reluctant - yet vital - role as a bridge between the two warring worlds of the poor and the privileged.
Harmond and Mame must rely on their own lifeless, bureaucratic language instead of English; this presents a challenge that neither Pinkins nor Lennix overcomes. Pinkins is a Tony-winning musical actress, but has chosen to hide her natural stage flamboyance rather than channel it into Mame (a tactic she used successfully when starring in Caroline, or Change three years ago), and thus doesn't allow Mame to be the forceful presence she must be in Harmond's life. Lennix is so stiff of body and manner throughout, it seems implausible he'd get as far as filing for candidacy without toppling over.
The dichotomy between the classes is not always satisfying, but it does seem to be by design: Only as Roosevelt, Mame, and especially Harmon are stripped down or built up and forced to face what they've denied can they connect again to their past. The play seriously stumbles in making this too blatant; an anxious final scene that's more a rapid wrap-up than an ideal conclusion uses imagery too familiar to arrive at a conclusion too pat for the tangled issues on which the story turns.
But it's unavoidable and forgivable that the characters and the play itself give into the cyclical nature of history and depict a return to one's roots: Nearly every other Wilson play has recommended, or demanded, that be recognized as the path to enlightenment. Harmond learns that it's not the mistakes, but how one works to rectify them that matters in the end; weaknesses, however devastating they may appear at the time, may vanish over the grander scheme of a life. Similarly, Radio Golf's weaknesses don't diminish Wilson's full chronicle, and its strengths more than justify it as a highly fitting finale to one of American theatre's most estimable epics.