The Sign of Genius: Oregon Shakespeare Festival's "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window"

May 22, 2014

Lorraine Hansberry’s premature death from cancer in 1965 at the age of the thirty-four deprived American theatre of a brilliant light. Her first play, A Raisin in the Sun, had dazzled Broadway in 1959, winning the New York Drama Critics Circle Award.  Only one other play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, saw production in her lifetime, and her deteriorating health severely challenged its development. Hansberry realized the final script was flawed, and after she died, her former husband and producer, Robert Nemiroff, reworked it twice, based on their conversations and earlier drafts.  Four more versions of the play emerged subsequently.  After studying them all, Director Juliette Carrillo and Lue Douthit, OSF Director of Literary Development and Dramaturgy, have crafted the script for the captivating production of Sidney Brustein running until July 3 in the Bowmer Theatre.

Sidney has given up saving the world in favor of failing at private enterprise.  His latest venture is a weekly newspaper.  His friend Wally O’Hara (Danforth Comins), running for municipal office and promising reform for their Greenwich Village neighborhood, seeks Sidney’s endorsement.  Sidney says no, he’s finished with politics. Yet by the next scene, O’Hara’s banner challenging “bossism” hangs in the Brusteins’ apartment window.  It may seem odd that Sidney’s decision to re-engage politically occurs offstage, but Hansberry’s dramatic choice is revealing.  Sidney’s about-face doesn’t alter the manic righteousness that mars his personal relationships, and as Hansberry will suggest, political action is just a power game, unless it’s grounded in personal virtue.    

Act One reveals a Sidney who deserves the label of self-absorbed sadist his wife Iris (Sofia Jean Gomez) pronounces at the start. He mocks the prolonged identity crisis of his young, light-skinned, half-Negro friend Alton (Armando McClain) and the existential aesthetic of David (Benjamin Pelteson), the gay playwright who lives upstairs.  He taunts Mavis (Erica Sullivan), his sister-in-law, about her benighted prejudices.  But most of all, he jabs at his unschooled wife from Oklahoma, the one with the regular paycheck, whom he considers a lesser intellect, unentitled to express opinions that conflict with his. 

Iris has spunk and smarts, though, and living with Sidney has clearly educated her in all departments.  She copes with his abuse by undercutting him back, prompting one verbal duel after another laced with all the wit and acid of an Albee match.  Sidney may be used to landing the decisive blow, but Iris has begun to visualize her own liberation. 

In the second act, Sidney’s reality starts coming apart.  David’s play gets rave reviews.  Iris goes to a party by herself.  Later she will decide to move out of the apartment. Alton embraces his racial identity with a resoluteness that’s beyond Sidney’s comprehension.  Then he discovers O’Hara’s corruption.  These cumulative shocks flip Sidney into an alcoholic binge of self-pity. It’s abruptly arrested by the entrance of Gloria (Vivia Font), Iris’s sister, a high-end call girl determined to turn her life around and accept Alton’s proposal of marriage. 

Gloria is the symbolic center of the play.  Her life exemplifies and exposes the degraded condition of its world.  For all the characters’ lofty talk, their interactions smack of prostitution, stained by the “grisly paws” of commerce.  “The real prostitutes are everyone else,” Gloria suggests, “especially housewives and career girls,” and her sisters’ compromises don’t contradict this assessment.  In fact everyone but Alton offers to fudge principles in exchange for a favor. And paradoxically it’s his inflexibility that turns Gloria into a sacrificial victim.

Sidney lives at some distance from his somatic experience.  Abstract ideas define his comfort zone.  He loves his concept of Iris—the country girl she plays in his fantasies of retreating to a mountaintop. He loves his versions of his friends—the failed playwright, the confused young man of mixed race, the dim sister-in-law, the politician fighting City Hall. When their concrete truths collide with his conceptions, his histrionic implosion isn’t pretty.  It takes Gloria’s death to redeem his nihilism.  Her body gives substance to political action, a personal cause to fight for. For Iris too, the loss of her sister seems to awaken new possibilities.  She returns to Sidney, and their mutual grief, we assume, will form the basis for a more honest relationship. 

We can only assume.  For The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is a terrifically smart play powered by intelligent, highly articulate, and finally paradoxical characters—as distinct and yet indeterminate as any real-world human beings, they elicit recognition, laughter, and compassion, plus the impulse to wring a neck or two.  Is Sidney cured of his own posturing in his final speeches?  Or is he simply constructing another mountain cabin of ideas?  Has Iris returned in triumph or defeat?  Has she truly changed?

The OSF cast rises to this ensemble challenge with splendid success.  More energy than mass, Menzel’s Sidney literally vibrates with intensity and bottled frustration, leaping from couch to table, from sarcasm to tenderness, from self-drama to genuine kindness.  Gomez’s Iris conveys both strength and desperation in her efforts to perform amusingly on the constricted stage afforded her by Sidney and his friends.  Hansberry probably got a kick out of giving her most cogent choral commentary to the ultra-conventional Mavis, and would have enjoyed Sullivan’s turn as a sort of suburban Delphic oracle.

After total immersion in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, its range of deeply realized characters, the rich density of its language, its layered ambiguities, I can’t help thinking that the instability of its text isn’t the only Shakespearean quality of the play.  Virginia Woolf once postulated a sister for the Bard, similarly gifted in writing plays.    It’s not difficult to imagine the spirit of this sister incarnated for an all to brief moment in the creative life of Lorraine Hansberry.