Hansberry's final play is compelling but incomplete
"The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window," the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of playwright Lorraine Hansberry's last play, is a love letter to the award-winning African-American artist on the 50th anniversary of her death.
Director Juliette Carrillo and a breathtaking OSF cast skillfully fashion Hansberry's character study of the early '60s and her passionate call for personal commitment into a contemporary statement for today's political and economic struggles.
Hansberry was a profound believer in an individual's impact on achieving justice. She wrote "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" in 1964, when the United States was on the cusp of major social upheaval — that era suspended in time between the shock of the Kennedy assassination and the anger of the Vietnam War. By the end of the play, Hansberry has her floundering, self-absorbed protagonist come to understand that every successful battle begins with the smallest of steps.
That is Hansberry's message — and much of the play builds to this epiphany — but "Brustein's" ending leaves many of the plot's conflicts unresolved. Hansberry wrote the play while seriously ill, and she died shortly after the play's opening on Broadway.
One wishes she had been able to edit, rewrite and polish the play's rough edges.
Sidney may decide to live a life of passionate personal commitment — he's already been diffusely passionate for much of the play — but how he is actually going to achieve something is rather sentimentally glossed over.
Sidney Brustein (Ron Menzel) is wryly cynical and excruciatingly intellectual, brimming over with impractical schemes. His wife, Iris (Sofia Jean Gomez), is an aspiring actress who supports them both by working as a waitress.
Sidney and his circle of friends wear their "outsider" identities like a badge.
Sidney is a Jew. Alton (Armando McClain) is a former Communist and a black man passing in white society. David (Benjamin Pelteson), is an openly homosexual playwright. Max (Peter Frechette until March 15, Jack Willis to July 3) is an artist so avant-garde that even he doesn't care what his art means.
Sidney gleefully pokes holes in his friends' personae, blissfully unaware of his own absurdity. He is proudly detached from the fray, believing in nothing and mocking everything.
When Sidney gets dragged back into fighting for a cause — campaigning for Wally O'Hara (Danforth Comins), a long-shot "reform" politician who will take the neighborhood back from the bosses — he becomes even more insufferable. Playwright Hansberry then proceeds to painstakingly take apart, scene by scene, his hypocritical moral superiority.
If Sidney is a jerk — and he is for most of the play — Iris is the unsung heroine. With all her fears, Iris is grounded, realistic and compassionate. She takes Sidney's dismissive attitude toward her opinions and feelings in stride until she can no longer take his smug contempt and puts him in his place.
Hansberry detonates bombs under each and every character, including Iris' mismatched sisters, Mavis (Erica Sullivan) and Gloria (Vivia Font) — Mavis has a scene that alone makes the play worth seeing. But, sadly, the play leaves us with the wreckage without the rebuilding.
As Hansberry wrote "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window," the struggles of the '60s were just beginning. The civil rights movement was splitting into a chasm between the faction counseling slow, deliberate progress and the Black Power movement demanding immediate action. Betty Friedan published the trumpet call of the women's liberation movement, "The Feminine Mystique," in 1963. The Stonewall riots — the violent demonstrations against a brutal police raid on an openly homosexual bar — began the fight for gay and lesbian rights in 1969.
Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer on Jan. 12, 1965, at the age of 34. She did not live to see the struggles, the victories or the continuing fight. "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window," however, continues her plea to put aside self-pity and self-defeat and come together to fashion a better world.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.