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Theater Review (Chicago): Magnolia at the Goodman (Premiere)

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Now that America has entered the "Age of Obama," many pundits like to speculate that we're living in a "post-racial" society. It doesn't take a mentalist to realize that this talk is based more on wishful thinking than reality. But Regina Taylor's new play takes that debate and turns it on its head, weaving a story that highlights our society's amazing strides while reminding us how close we remain to the darkness of our past. And all without leaving Atlanta in 1963.

Magnolia, showing at the Goodman through April 19, richly portrays a time in American history when, like today, many were congratulating themselves for destroying racial boundaries. But such idealism rings false for most of the characters in Taylor's Atlanta, who remember the dark past – both societal and personal – too well to free themselves of it so easily.

This is true for no one more than the play's two main characters, Thomas and Lily Forrest (John Earl Jelks, Annette O'Toole). The two, black and white respectively, share the same last name because of a common ancestry that dates back to slavery. Both have spent their lives trying to shake the shadows of their parentage, though the reputations that said parentage embodies are vastly different. To its credit, the play is not simplistic enough to paint them as polar opposites, but each is governed by an intense ambivalence about history and how it defines them.

It is critical to note that, despite its foundational racial subject matter, Magnolia is based on Anton Chekov's The Cherry Orchard. The mark of such a worthy inspiration can be seen not only in the profound and nuanced conversations that dominate the script, and not only in the clear plot parallels between Chekov's orchard and the magnolia grove the Forrest Plantation is built upon (going up for auction, despite the family's history of wealth, just as in Chekov's play), but even in the details; no character ever occupies the stage without a specific need to be there, and offstage sounds are used carefully but often, including the sound of a tree being felled, which ends both Chekov's and Taylor's script.

There is much to love about this play, and about the Goodman's premiere of it. The rich dialogue contains so much interesting and pertinent information, as well as clues to the temperature of Atlanta's civil rights movement, that I often found myself wishing I had the script in front of me. But rather than fault the play for being wordy, I think I'll just buy myself a copy, and recommend that you get a seat on the main floor, read the program, and pay close attention.  You might be witnessing the birth of one of America's great stage plays, in the new Age of Taylor.

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About Marissa Flaxbart