'Radio Golf' on par with the season's best

By D. A. Blackburn

Over the course of his 10-play "Century Cycle," playwright August Wilson charted the African-American experience decade by decade with more candor and realism than any writer before or since. His final work, "Radio Golf," premiered just prior to his death in 2005, and has now taken up residency at the Detroit Repertory Theatre. Like his other works, it is a potent, but endearing look at race relations, the American urban condition and the forces that defined communities in the 20th Century - this time, in the 1990s.

Harmond Wilks (Tony Lucas) is a man divided, at odds over his professional and political ambitions, and his obligations to friends, family and the community. His wife Mame (Jennifer Jones) and partner Roosevelt Hicks (Michael Joseph) expect him to move forward with a multi-million dollar development and his campaign for mayor of Pittsburgh, but two local acquaintances, Sterling Johnson (Nelson Jones) and Elder Joseph Barlow (Council Cargle), remind him that the past can be as important as the future.

Excellent performances abound in this production about urban and personal renewal. Wilson, whose social commentary is painted in delicate strokes rather than the broad swipes of many of his contemporaries, brings ideas to life through his complicated, deep characters. And in this respect, the Repertory's cast excels.

All show a sincere understanding of the issues and history that shape their characters. And all perform with a conviction that feels sincere - as if they're not creating characters at all, but are genuine people going about their daily lives.

In the play, Harmond Wilks faces tough decisions, and ultimately follows his heart rather than the path laid out by those around him. Lucas brings Wilks' transformation to life with such vivid acting that his struggle seems palpable - experienced rather than simply witnessed. Wilks' relationship with Mame, too, seems disarmingly real. This has much to do with the emotional purity and concise nature of Wilson's writing, but there's no denying the significant chemistry between Lucas and Jennifer Jones.

The character of Roosevelt Hicks, too, is a major force in expressing the underlying themes of "Radio Golf" - the perils of affirmative action, particularly - and Joseph shows great poise in making him both an endearing figure and a social pariah. He is every bit as complicated as Wilks, if not more so, and Joseph draws out the subtleties necessary to illustrate this point.

Though "Radio Golf" is, at its core, a dramatic work, Wilson has woven some delightful humor throughout the play. What's truly refreshing is the way its laughs feel completely natural. The script draws out the humor of everyday life, which makes it feel all that much more poignant.

Many of the play's funniest moments come from the characters of Sterling Johnson and Elder Joseph (Old Joe) Barlow. Both are roles that feel somehow familiar, but are far from being caricatures. Nelson Jones and Cargle both make a profound impact on the production, driving its story while earning laughs with ease.

From a design perspective, the production is equally well-executed. Harry Wetzel's sharp sets show a real eye for detail, and add to the show's realistic feel. Judy Dery's thoughtful costumes help to anchor the work in time, and also help to establish the characters and their positions in society. Thomas Schraeder's lighting is simple and tasteful, and an elegant, seamlessly integrated sound design by Burr Huntington is a special high-point. Coupled with this dynamic cast, these elements make it easy to get lost in the illusory world of "Radio Golf."

In golf terms--the sport has a significant symbolism throughout the work - "Radio Golf" is a hole-in-one. And the Detroit Repertory Theatre presents it with the all precision and skill of Tiger Woods.

REVIEW:

'Radio Golf'

Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit. Thu.-Sun., through March 22. Tickets: $17 in advance/$20 at the door. For information: 313-868-1347 or http://www.detroitreptheatre.com

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