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The magic takes its time, this time: It feels like days before the eccentric Elder Joseph Barlow strolls into the scruffy neighborhood-development office that is the setting for Radio Golf and cracks the play open.
And it’s a touch disappointing, this slow start, because this play is the capstone in August Wilson’s much-acclaimed “century cycle”—10 sprawling, discursive dramas, each set in a different decade of what once was called the American Century, that together attempt to capture the pleasures and the pangs of the African-American experience.
Not just one experience, of course: In tales as diverse as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, about the blues legend and the contentious men in her band, and Fences, about an embittered ex-ballplayer and the son whose dreams he stifles, Wilson has examined his people through many a filter: the troubled strivers and the shattered dreamers, the sturdy women and the oracles and the wonder-workers.
Add Elder Joseph Barlow to the oracle column—more on which in a moment—but don’t think Wilson’s most famous wonder-worker won’t make her presence known in this summing-up: 300-year-old “soul washer” Aunt Ester, though she passed from this world during the events chronicled in King Hedley II, does her good work by proxy in Radio Golf, as Pittsburgh real-estate mogul Harmond Wilks revs up a bid for the mayor’s office just as his neighborhood redevelopment plan hits a snag in the shape of Aunt Ester’s now-abandoned home.
Barlow, who stakes a claim to the house and sparks a string of questions that’ll force Wilks to reassess both of those big projects, is one of Wilson’s trademark mad wise men, a character whose surface loopiness will eventually turn out to conceal not just a profound wisdom about this world but an unmistakable understanding of the one beyond it. He’s played here, terrifically, by the indispensable Frederick Strother, an actor who’s made something of a specialty of the type. (If that sounds like a suggestion that the performance involves some kind of mooncalf shorthand, the reality is anything but: Strother, who’s played The Piano Lesson’s wandering Wining Boy and the shaman Bynum in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, among others, invests Old Joe with a dignity and a sagacity that could come only from a performer who’s spent years and years living in Wilson’s world.)
Some sagacity attends the character of Harmond Wilks, and a degree of dignity, too, but ultimately Radio Golf feels like one of Wilson’s lesser accomplishments—in part because for all its pointed questions about the price of opportunity once it’s finally won, Harmond’s story turns out to be a fairly prosaic good-guy-drifts-off-course yarn: A man with neighborhood roots makes good, gets a shot at the big time, only to let a little compromise force him into a choice between bigger compromises and the end of his dreams.
It’s also—not to put too fine a point on it—because of a certain blandness about Walter Coppage’s performance in what’s meant to be a flawed-hero part. Coppage has the politician’s smooth manner down pat, but on the page Harmond’s escalating crisis involves a restless hunger and a certain amount of stubbornness—and those qualities aren’t much in evidence here.
Deidra LaWan Starnes makes a quicker and sharper impression as Wilks’ wife, Mame, who’s both chasing a dream job as the governor’s spokeswoman and plotting a no-lose strategy for Harmond’s campaign; the pleasures of her company extend to her perfectly cut suits (by costumier Reggie Ray) and a cuttingly chic hairstyle that ought to have its own fan club. Similarly intriguing is Erik Kilpatrick’s no-nonsense Sterling Johnson, a local laborer-for-hire who makes no bones about where his loyalties lie once the costs of gentrification—and the question of what’s legal vs. what’s right—come into focus.
And there’s something undeniably seductive about Roosevelt Hicks (a canny Kim Sullivan), Harmond’s partner in that neighborhood-redevelopment scheme; he’s an operator of the highest order, a bank vice-president doing deals on the golf course and in the bar afterward, and ultimately the kind of guy who gives the label “pragmatist” a whiff of the disreputable. Sullivan’s Roosevelt isn’t just a snappy dresser, he’s downright charismatic—you can’t help liking him, even understanding him, even as his betrayals and his compromises mount up. It’s to Radio Golf’s detriment that this production feels more like the story of Roosevelt’s corruption than the story of Harmond’s eventual redemption.
Happily there’s Strother, whose every appearance provokes welcoming chuckles from the crowd, and whose carefully calibrated oddities keep the laughter coming, even as they add up to a revelation that will rock Wilks’ world—and completely change the younger man’s sense of his place in it. Wilson completists will delight in how clear Strother (with an assist from Sullivan) makes a string of crucial connections for the amusement of those for whom the names Citizen Barlow and Black Mary mean something; less committed theatergoers will just be delighted by the wisdom and charm of his performance, and their happy applause at the curtain is just what this invaluable actor deserves.