August Wilson’s final play is a satisfying if less-than-overwhelming conclusion to his extraordinary decade-by-decade chronicle of the African-American experience in the 20th century. Although “Radio Golf” isn’t as polished as one could imagine it with further revising, it’s still a more tightly written play than the sprawling recent installments in the late playwright’s sociological saga. The fine-tuned Center Stage production benefits from the experience of director Kenny Leon, the cast and crew with the play on the regional circuit.
One reason “Radio Golf” brings the cycle to such an appropriate conclusion is that it’s set in Wilson’s beloved Hill District in Pittsburgh in 1997. Harmond Wilks (a too-bland Rocky Carroll) is a real estate developer and potential mayoral candidate, and his wife, Mame (Denise Burse), is on the same upwardly mobile path. Also making it in the white man’s world is Harmond’s business partner, the golf-playing Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams).
The forceful point of Wilson’s play is that material success comes at a spiritual price. The characters’ upscale real estate project will demolish old neighborhood houses and perhaps not really help the working-class population. The protagonists are reminded of this by an acquaintance, Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks), who has accrued bluntly expressed street wisdom; and a seemingly crazy old man, Elder Joseph Barlow (a wonderfully rambling Anthony Chisholm), who in venerable Wilson fashion speaks the oracular truth.
It turns out the real estate project would involve tearing down the house that belonged to Aunt Ester, the quasi-mythic figure who recurs in the cycle and was seen in the flesh for the first time in “Gem of the Ocean.”
If “Radio Golf” largely benefits from having a cleaner narrative line and fewer digressions than its immediate predecessors, this proves a mixed blessing. That’s because it lacks the richly poetic dialogue that can make a Wilson play such a thrilling linguistic event. However, it gets the thematic job done in its own prosaic and overly schematic manner.
Further rewriting might have psychologically fleshed out Harmond, because his ultimate decision to do the right thing, while plausible, comes across as hastily announced authorial wish-fulfillment.
This struggle for the black soul, if you will, is played out on a set by David Gallo that makes the debate visible by flanking Harmond’s coldly efficient contemporary office with fragments of abandoned wood buildings; Donald Holder’s lighting sensibly makes the office bright and its abstracted slum surroundings dim.
Susan Hilferty’s costumes and other tech credits reinforce the straightforward depiction of folks living so close to the present.
Even though the relatively pedestrian “Radio Golf” is not up there with Wilson’s great plays, his last words merit additional early 21st-century broadcasts.