In 1979, August Wilson set out on a theatrical journey that reached its goal in 2005, just before his death, with the 10th play of his Pittsburgh Cycle. That play was "Radio Golf," set, like all but one of the other plays, in the Hill District.
Now, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company also completes a journey, staging "Radio Golf" in its 10th year, completing all 10 Pittsburgh Cycle plays in the order in which they were written.
PPTC's August Wilson productions are often very good, and this is among them.
"Radio Golf" turns out to be rich with layers of personal drama and social history. Set in 1997, the drama is of a successful man of business who rediscovers the soul he has neglected. It's particularly appealing to Pittsburghers because Wilson stuffed it with more references to local names, places, dates and events than usual because he knew it was the last play he would write. Here, it's further linked to Pittsburgh by having its entrances and a large storefront window directly involve the audience.
The story is about Harmond Wilks, the Ivy League-educated third generation of a family of successful real estate brokers, who plans to gentrify a section of the Hill and become Pittsburgh's first black mayor, aided by his wife, Mame, and business partner, the upwardly ambitious, morally dubious Roosevelt Hicks. But along the way the past rises up, in the persons of Old Joe Barlow and Sterling Johnson, to rebuke him both for his sense of entitlement and for losing touch with his heritage.
The play proceeds mainly through gradual revelation of past and present relationships. But there is verbal action, especially in a face-off between Roosevelt and Sterling, one of my favorite August Wilson scenes. There is further energy in small details of character, such as Mame's wariness of Sterling that must owe something to the caring direction of Eileen Morris, as also must the avoidance of blackouts between most scenes, the better to keep things moving.
Still, "Radio Golf" doesn't really get going until, after initial chatter of golf games (emblem of the middle class) and campaign plans, Wilson returns to his strongest mode, the authentic voices of the traditional Hill. As if in full knowledge of that, Kevin Brown's Old Joe enters full blast, like a stand-up comic on speed, full of shuffles and tics, determined to galvanize the play. Of course the audience eats it up, even though it contradicts the account of Old Joe we've just had from Roosevelt.
But Mr. Brown is an actor of ability, and eventually he moderates his characterization and Old Joe becomes, as he is meant to be, the sly embodiment of the traditional wisdom that helps save Harmond from the soul-destroying gospel of money.
Art Terry's Roosevelt is spot-on from the start, a careerist who doesn't mind letting the white man use him because he trusts he will end up on top. From one point of view, you could categorize Roosevelt along with Caesar Wilks in "Gem of the Ocean" (tellingly, Harmond's grandfather) as the two villains of the whole Pittsburgh Cycle. But no one is a villain from his own point of view, and Mr. Terry paints a persuasive portrait of a man on the make.
Equally at home is Wali Jamal as Sterling, the neighborhood handyman who is sure of who he is and of the balance between business and ethics. We met Sterling as a hopeful young man in "Two Trains Running," set in 1969, but the playwright's chronology is that of imaginative art, not biography. Here, Sterling is Harmond's former classmate, both in perhaps their late 40s, and he exemplifies the community heart and tradition that Harmond has to rediscover. Now acting in his ninth August Wilson play, Mr. Jamal plays Sterling with a perfect blend of anger and optimism.
Ms. Bates is somewhat out of her comfort zone as Harmond's wife of 20 years, a polished public relations professional about to crown her career by becoming the governor's press secretary. Ms. Bates is a warmer, more casual and seductive presence than would be likely in that governmental role.
There is something doubly appropriate in having the relatively inexperienced Mark Clayton Southers play the central role of Harmond. For one thing, Harmond is also something of an innocent: Mr. Southers' earnestness and occasional uncertainty melt into Harmond's. For another, it was Mr. Southers who founded the Playwrights Theatre company 10 years ago. How fitting that he is here now as it reaches the end of the Pittsburgh Cycle, not only as producer, set designer and driving force, but central onstage, as well.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.