• 'The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window' Playwright: Lorraine Hansberry Director: Juliette Carrillo Dramaturg: Lue Morgan Douthit Runs: Through July 3 in the Angus Bowmer Theatre Tickets: Visit www.osfashland.org or call 541-482-4331

  • The Oregon Shakespeare Festival marks the 50th anniversary of celebrated playwright Lorraine Hansberry's death with its unique adaptation of her rarely staged play "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window."
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  • The Oregon Shakespeare Festival marks the 50th anniversary of celebrated playwright Lorraine Hansberry's death with its unique adaptation of her rarely staged play "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window."
    The script was meticulously assembled from multiple previous versions by OSF's literary design team, led by director Juliette Carrillo and Lue Morgan Douthit, literary development director and dramaturg.
    "People are always surprised at how much plays are living, breathing documents," says Douthit. Biologists talk about natural selection and how organisms adapt over time to become better fitted to survive in their environment. Plays also evolve, adapted by literary design teams to suit different audiences, staging needs or the director's vision.
    Unlike adapting classical works, such as Shakespeare's, adaptation of a modern play often requires permission from the playwright or the playwright's estate.
    "We've done this before with other mid-century playwrights, such as Tennessee Williams, who was notorious for having different versions of his plays," says Douthit. "We usually go to the estate and just get permission, but the Lorraine Hansberry estate was very involved and interested in the process."
    Douthit and Carrillo worked closely with the estate's literary trustee, Joi Gresham, which was refreshing and educational, says Douthit. "When we have access to an estate, we can ask questions and learn why or how it was changed. With the Shakespeare plays, we just have to figure it out for ourselves."
    The team focused on the original 1964 play and a 1987 revival. They did a side-by-side reading of the plays, pulling the best aspects from each and assembling a version that honored Lorraine Hansberry's intentions and resonated with the festival's modern audience.
    "It wasn't always easy," Douthit says of the work she did with Carrillo and Gresham. "All three of us trying to speak for a woman none of us had ever met.
    "We edited and shaped it with the estate's blessing, which I'm really proud of," says Douthit. Everyone involved, including the actors, had a say about lines, characters and scenes. "There was a lot of back and forth and that was really fun."
    The play tells the story of Sidney, a directionless and self-absorbed Greenwich Village intellectual, his wife, Iris, and their diverse group of friends and relatives, all struggling to find meaning in their lives during the turbulent 1960s.
    When the play first opened in 1964, it wasn't well-received by critics and had a short run on Broadway. It closed around the same time that Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34.
    Douthit refers to "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" as her passion play. She has been lobbying for its production at OSF for nearly 20 years. When the play came up as a possibility for the 2014 season, Douthit seized the chance to see it through to production.
    "I asked nearly every year, and the timing was finally right," she says. "Earlier, we weren't in a place where we could be deeply reflective about the '60s. Now, we're in a period of national reflection," she says.
    The early 1960s saw the beginning of social and political struggles that shaped our nation, such as the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the feminist movement.
    "There are older people who were in their 20s during this period and young people today who are seeing this play and finding it very relevant to their lives," Douthit says. "It's a conversation between grandparents and grandchildren, in a way."
    "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" continues in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through July 3.
    Angela Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at decker4@gmail.com. Read her poetry blog at www.dailytidings.com/decker.
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