Reviewed by Will Stackman
The Huntington Theatre Co.'s season opener, the pre-Broadway presentation of this theatre's production of their old friend, August Wilson's last play "Radio Golf." The final work in his interrelated set of plays--one for each decade of the 20th century which chronicle the life of the African-American community in Pittsburgh's Hill District--was finished just before his death at age 60. This effort is directed by Kenny Leon, whose helmed the Huntington's last Wilson production, "Gem of the Ocean," The five-member cast has all worked on various plays by the author, and four have been seen in productions in this theater. "Radio Golf" had its first run at the Mark Taper in L.A. directed by Leon. But somehow the show seems unfinished, its characters more superficial, its action plainly melodramatic. One can understand the urgency surrounding its completion, but the arbitrary nature of much of the situation and character's reactions is a letdown.
Regional stage actor Hassan El-Amin plays the central figure, Harmond Wilks, who inherited a large real estate business in the area. He's planning to campaign to become the city's first black mayor. Wilk's strongest backer is his wife, Mame, played by Michole Briana White. She's a well-connected public relations specialist, who did not grow up in the Hill District, and has no interest in living there. James A. Williams plays his partner and old friend, Roosevelt Hicks. They're involved in a multimillion dollar real estate development, which will tear down the fabled house central to several of the plays in the cycle. All three actors are believable as contemporary professionals, pursuing the American dream. But they seem somehow stereotypes, fully fleshed out by the actors but distinguished by merely their minor quirks and external circumstances, such a Harmond's twin football player brother who died in Vietnam, rebelling against their stern father.
The rest of the cast includes two slightly mythic characters, Sterling Johnson played by Eugene Lee--who replaced previously announced James Earl Jelks--and Elder Joseph Barlow, played by Anthony Chisholm, both typically Wilsonian. Both were seen in "Gem of the Ocean." Their character's speech is colorful, embellished by folk wisdom, while their world views are unique if somewhat arbitrary. Their scenes elevate the action beyond a comedy about two ambitious black businessmen which ends in unanticipated betrayal. But Johnson and Barlow seem like stock characters, contributing to a sense of melodrama and carrying most of the freight from the past. This continuity doesn't contribute as much to the play as one might hope. Wilson's work is always worth consideration, but "Radio Golf" lacks the impact of his more important plays. With the help of friends and longtime collaborators, its a satisfactory evening of theatre even where the work seems embryonic. And "Radio Golf" doesn't really sum up the lives depicted in the nine previous plays.
The set by David Gallo, who did "Gem of the Ocean," "King Hedley II," and "Jitney" for the Huntington, is again spectacular, reaching into the flies and off into the wings, with the acting area, an dilapidated storefront, flanked by an abandoned barbershop and a derelict bar which don't figure in the action. Donald Holder's essentially realistic lighting has moments of focus while costumes by Susan Hilfrey help define the two world's of the play. Dan Moses Shrier's sound design employs Kathyrn Bostic's original compositions and adaptations. This first-rate production should transfer effectively to New York, even though the only big name this time is the author. But there's something extraneous about much of the set; the play might be more convincing with less decor. Its small cast and modern dress may encourage regional productions in future season's but not necessarily to the increase of Wilson's stature.