Perhaps even more moving than the story at hand, SIGN is a bittersweet reminder of all the other great American plays that might have been – had Lorraine Hansberry not died at 34
Say you parachuted in from Mars with no knowledge of 20th century American theatre history and were hustled into a dark space to see some plays. First it’s A RAISIN IN THE SUN (maybe the production now on Broadway with Denzel Washington), and then THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW (maybe the immaculate production now on at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival). Would you ever guess that both these works were written by the same late 20’s / early 30’s playwright? Probably not.
On the one hand, RAISIN, the big play about a black American family in Chicago, is well known and constantly on somewhere. On the other, SIGN, the complex portrait of social and familial turbulence in the West Village in 1964 among a mostly white cast, is rarely seen. As the two main data points left to us from Lorraine Hansberry’s brief life, the plays could not be more different in terms of the worlds and characters they investigate. They suggest a vital and wide-ranging artistic intelligence that was only getting started. And so a lot of the appeal of seeing the moving production of SIGN now on at OSF is marveling at Hansberry’s scope and ambition. You can’t help wondering what other plays she would have given us. What if she had lived to be 70 or 80? Gazing out from numerous portraits, usually with a blazing, confident smile, Hansberry looks like a stylish cosmopolitan prophet way ahead of her time – but potentially at home in any.
SIGN covers a lot of subjects: marital politics, race, class, feminism, substance abuse, political corruption, conformity and wayward traveling. If you go in expecting another “story about the 1960’s”, you’re going to be surprised – but not disappointed. For one thing, it’s 1963/4, so the full on 60’s haven’t ignited yet. There is still so much to come that the characters and indeed author don’t know about, even if we do. The lives here are more interesting than the familiar narratives of either civil rights struggle, rock and roll hedonism, anti-war protests, or back to the land communes. This is not a play about issues, it’s about puzzling, maddening, complicated people who happen to be living in a specific time and place.
The setting is the Greenwich Village apartment of Iris Parodus Brustein (Sofia Jean Gomez) and her husband Sidney Brustein (Ron Menzel). Iris is a struggling actor, Sidney is a failed night club entrepreneur who has recently latched on to the money-making (not) idea of buying a local newspaper. Though married, the two loudly grind the relationship gears almost constantly, and you wait for one of them to storm out or explode in frustration. Iris and Sidney are together but they don’t seem to know each other very well. It’s fascinating to watch these two try to find their notes and course in life, with limited success. Sidney is a bit of a blowhard and pushes Iris around, sometimes without realizing it. But Iris yearns for her own life and takes real steps to achieve independence, which keeps Sidney on his toes.
Around the Brustein center orbits a system of other characters. There’s David Ragin (Benjamin Pelteson), the gay playwright who lives upstairs and is realizing his first big success; Wally O’Hara (Danforth Comins), a new politician running for reform who wants to win Sidney’s support; Alton Scales (Armando McClain), Sidney’s former communist friend; Max (Peter Frechette), the artist in a beret; and Iris’s two sisters Mavis, living a life of social conformity (at least on the outside), and Gloria (Vivia Font), a wonderfully rendered and upsetting “call girl”.
It’s a long ride (close to three hours), but I was so captivated, without being able to clearly say why, that I saw it a second time just to be sure. It holds up. This is one of those plays that is perfect for OSF and that OSF can do perfectly.
Late in act two, there is a sort of dream sequence as several of the characters whirl in a vortex of destruction and desperation. This may be one of the scenes that stays with me the most. The world we think we know of the 60’s may be out there, but inside the apartment unique stories unfold – and lives fall apart.
Lorraine, we hardly knew you. But at least you gave us these two plays to savor as we consider how much more you probably had to say.