Chicago Theatre Review
The Raisin That Doesn’t Quite Ripen
The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window – Goodman Theatre
Lorraine Hansberry, a native Chicagoan, and the first black playwright to have one of her plays produced on Broadway, is best known for her moving 1959 classic, “A Raisin in the Sun.” That timeless, groundbreaking, somewhat autobiographical drama depicts an African American family in Chicago trying to fulfill their dream of moving into a better neighborhood. “…Sidney Brustein…,”one of her lesser known plays was produced on Broadway in 1964, just three months prior to the playwright’s untimely death. However, despite the magnificence of her first play, this drama just didn’t spark the same attention or critical popularity. The play closed shortly after it opened, although since that time there have been a number of regional revivals, such as this one at the Goodman.
Ms. Hansberry’s play very much reflects the era in which it was written and is set. It holds a mirror up to the basic principles that people held dear in the 1960’s. Through this drama, the playwright looks at the idealist. She asks the timely question: should I stand idly by and just watch or should I take a stand and try to effect a change? The story centers around a group of Greenwich Village residents, primarily a Jewish New Yorker named Sidney Brustein, his wife Iris and her two sisters, Gloria and Mavis. We also meet their small circle of friends, who include Alton, David, Max and Wally. Each character, of course, has his own agenda, which includes personal, social and political changes. The problem is that this play lacks any sort of cohesion. It’s as if the various plot lines all occur independently without much connection to each other. The play resembles several short stories that occur in the same Greenwich Village locale.
Director Anne Kauffman allows her production to flow leisurely and naturally without pushing. It has a relaxed quality, as the individual stories gradually unfold. Sidney is the single unifying element, but he almost seems like a mere observer in each narrative without actually becoming an active participant. Sidney’s callous, off-hand remarks prompt his wife to explore other life options, but he doesn’t seem very affected. Sidney’s decision to back Wally’s political campaign appears more like a shrewd business decision to make his recently acquired underground newspaper relevant, rather than being a pro-active decision. Sidney’s laissez faire attitude toward his friend Alton’s relationship with Gloria, his call girl sister-in-law, results in tragedy. Even his relationship with Mavis, his very middle class, married sister-in-law is mostly indifferent. It’s not until much later, when Sidney actually sits down with her and listens, does he come to find any value in this woman. But all of these plot points evolve slowly and without any sense of urgency.
Kevin Depinet’s detailed apartment cleverly seems to float above the Goodman stage. He’s removed the trap room below the stage and designed a a latticework of scaffolding, both below and above the combination living room and kitchen, that creates this illusion. The apartment is flanked by a very realistic-looking neighboring brownstone building, laced with fire escape ladders and windows. His excellent work is lit with mood and precision by Justin Townsend. Alison Siple has designed an authentic wardrobe of 60’s fashions that look realistic and harken back to a simpler time, adding another layer to each character.
The cast bring their best to each role. As Sidney, Chris Stack manages to keep all the plates in the air as he juggles Hansberry’s storylines. The actor is articulate and seems appropriate for this role. Diane Davis, so excellent in Steppenwolf’s “The Qualms,” is the most sympathetic character in the play, as Iris, Sidney’s generous, hardworking wife. We care a lot about her plight and empathize with her, especially as tragedy strikes in Act III. Gloria is nicely played by Kristen Magee, again evoking sympathy for her character’s sad existence that turns even more hopeless. We feel that same sympathy for Travis A. Knight’s Alton, a light-skinned African American young man, so much in love with Gloria. That he’s kept in the dark about his girlfriend’s past, is indicative of all the lies with which he’s been dealt all his life. As Mavis, Miriam Silverman gets to play the best character in this play. For the first half we see this character only as a narrow-minded, middle-class matron. But after Mavis shares a drink or two with Sidney, Ms. Silverman brings a frank irony to her role that’s neither smug nor all-knowing. As David, Sidney’s gay playwright neighbor, Grant James Varjas makes strong and unique choices that, like his role in Red Orchid’s “Accidentally, Like a Martyr,” are memorable and honest.
Lorraine Hansberry’s last play is entertaining and certainly probes questions that deserve consideration. However, the fierce immediacy and timeless importance of her magnum opus, “A Raisin in the Sun,” never really surfaces in this play. While played with honesty, Anne Kauffman’s production just never catches fire. It flows too leisurely and doesn’t build to any kind of an important conclusion. This play, at least as produced this time around, is a raisin that just never fully ripens in the sun.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 30-June 5 by the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Goodman box office, by calling them at 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/TheSign.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com