‘The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window’ a fascinating revelation

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Diane Davis and Chris Stack in the Goodman Theatre production of “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Lorraine Hansberry’s play “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” —now receiving a revelatory production at the Goodman Theatre —has its flaws. But those flaws are inconsequential when compared to all that is fascinating about this work that debuted on Broadway in 1964, just a few months before the playwright’s untimely death.

‘THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’S WINDOW’ HIGHLY RECOMMENDED When: Through June 5 Where: Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $25 – $75 Info: www.GoodmanTheatre.org/TheSign Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission

In fact, Hansberry’s play now appears to be working a considerable miracle. For it not only captures a period of monumental change in this country’s history, but at the same time, with Cassandra-like brilliance, eerily seems to have forecast the zeitgeist of our own moment. In the process it leaves you wondering about all that might have been written by this playwright had she not died of cancer at the age of 34.

It is worth noting that “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” arrived on stage just two years after Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” another bruising portrait of a calamitous marriage that homes in on two couples of different generations trapped in a New England college town, and in their own lies and resentments. But compared to Hansberry’s play (which is radically different from her career-making work, “A Raisin in the Sun”), Albee’s is the essence of narrow-casting.

Grant James Varjas (from left), Diane Davis, Chris Stack and Miriam Silverman in “The Sign in Siidney Brustein’s Window” at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Grant James Varjas (from left), Diane Davis, Chris Stack and Miriam Silverman in “The Sign in Siidney Brustein’s Window” at the Goodman Theatre. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Hansberry gives us the world as encapsulated by a cross section of New York’s Greenwich Village at the pivotal moment when left-wing bohemian dreams and a lingering 1950s-style veneer of propriety were giving way to the activism of the Civil Rights movement and, as this production makes so clear, the early stirrings of the feminist revolution. She gives us a deeply troubled marriage that is infused with the wider world —with political philosophy and the politics of the street, with the whole spectrum of sexual “predilections” (her choice of word), with the bitterness of racial divisions, with the subcultures of show business, small presses and abstract painting, with the difference between the urban life and the rustic life, and more. And she bluntly exposes the hypocrisy in liberals as well as conservatives, intellectuals as well as businessmen, the straight world as well as the gay world, suggesting (like Tennessee Williams) that we all share the same primal urges and impulse for selfishness.

To be sure, the play can sometimes feel a bit clumsy and overwritten. But director Anne Kauffman’s production, which plays out on Kevin Depinet’s monumental set, celebrates the ambition and reach of it all. (The play, not incidentally, is almost entirely about white people, yet race is ever-present.)

The five-year-old marriage at the center of Hansberry’s story is between Sidney Brustein (Chris Stack), a ne’er-do-well Jewish liberal who has taken possession of The Village Cryer (a weekly newspaper he cannot afford, and whose existence might well depend on his not alienating the powers that be in his district), and Iris (a heat-exuding Diane Davis), a mix of Greek immigrant, Irish and Cherokee parentage who escaped her Oklahoma upbringing, and who, though lacking in talent, dreams of an acting career. Sidney’s sense of his own failure results in his passive-aggressive relationship with Iris, whose ego he alternately inflates and deflates in the most destructive ways. In large part this play is about Iris’ declaration of independence. And both Stack and Davis deftly suggest the complex chemistry between the two, and the changes that will separate them.

Miriam Silverman and Chris Stack in the Goodman Theatre production of “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Miriam Silverman and Chris Stack in the Goodman Theatre production of “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Spinning around the couple are their friends: Alton (Travis A. Knight), a tall, handsome, increasingly disillusioned activist who is black, but can easily “pass” for white, and is perhaps closest to Hansberry herself in this play; Max (Phillip Edward Van Lear), who believes his abstract paintings are the expression of his freedom; and David (Grant James Varjas), a gay “absurdist” playwright. There also is Wally O’Hara (the notably authentic Guy Van Swearingen), the so-called reformist politician who the naive Stanley supports, only to learn that he is the usual hack.

Finally, there are Iris’ two very different sisters, and together they are like the Three Furies —the infernal goddesses of Greek myth. Mavis appears to be the quintessential upper middle-class wife and mother, with a successful but adulterous husband and a deep streak of racism. But in a stunningly revealing scene with Sidney, Miriam Silverman (one of the show’s several New York actors) simply blows the roof off the drama. The youngest of the siblings, Gloria (Kristen Magee), is a damaged call girl who works out of town and hopes to marry Alton, who is initially unaware of what she really does.

Yes, Hansberry packed her play to bursting, but she very likely sensed she was running out of time. And, like Iris, she wanted desperately to leave a mark. And that she unquestionably did.

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