History lurks on all sides of "Radio Golf," the 10th and final of August Wilson's towering cycle of history plays. It permeates every inch of David Gallo's set, a real estate office surrounded by the blasted remains of a barbershop and a diner in the middle of Pittsburgh's once-vibrant Hill District. And it hovers with proud sadness over Kenny Leon's production, which brings to a close the most ambitious theatrical undertaking in the history of American theater. Despite a strong central performance by Harry Lennix and a superb supporting one by Anthony Chisholm, "Radio Golf" is too simplistic and top-heavy to rank in the upper strata of the Wilson canon, with neither the generational complexities that ignited "The Piano Lesson" and "Fences" nor the insight into group dynamics that surged through "Two Trains Running" and "Jitney." All the same, it infuses the timely issue of urban renewal with Wilson's signature amalgamation of jukejoint gossip, classical tragedy, and bone-deep wisdom, a blend that manages to be both discursive and seething.
It's 1997, and a glimmer of hope is in the air — for a select few members of Pittsburgh's black community. Harmond Wilks (Mr. Lennix), a prominent real estate developer and aspiring politician, and his hard-hearted business partner, Roosevelt Hicks (James A. Williams), have pinned their hopes on a redevelopment project that would bring upscale apartments and a Whole Foods to the Hill District. In one of the play's many bitter ironies, Harmond and Roosevelt consider it a good thing for the city to declare the area blighted, because this will steer federal money toward the project. This, in turn, will allow Harmond to launch his candidacy for mayor, with his ambitious wife, Mame (Tonya Pinkins), serving as his campaign manager.
There's a catch, though. Two area residents are painting what Roosevelt dismisses as a "raggedy-ass old house" in the middle of the planned site, despite its imminent plans for demolition. One of those interlopers is Sterling Johnson (John Earl Jelks), a down-on-his-luck former classmate of Harmond's and Roosevelt's with a chip on his shoulder. The other, the addled Elder Joe Barlow (Mr. Chisholm), claims he owns the house and is sprucing it up for his daughter.
The house, we learn, belonged to Aunt Ester, the mythic "washer of souls" who was celebrated in many Wilson plays and finally depicted in 2003's "Gem of the Ocean." Aunt Ester lived for more than 350 years, which in and of itself would appear to warrant landmark status. But Joe turns out to have more than just posterity on his side, and Harmond is forced to address some thorny chapters in his own family history while choosing between economic self-interest and the preservation of a seemingly moribund community.
This last decision spotlights one of Wilson's weaknesses, a habit of abandoning logic for the sake of scoring melodramatic points. Why must salvaging Aunt Ester's home automatically spell doom for the project? It only takes up a fraction of the planned site, and if Harmond is such a deft politician, he could easily spin the yoking of community stewardship and economic growth as an improvement over the original scheme. Harmond briefly floats this idea, but it's clear that such a nuanced and inclusive message held as little interest for the playwright as for the villainous developers in his play. "You ain't got to study up on right and wrong," insists an indignant Sterling, and Wilson's take on the morality of urban renewal is only slightly more complicated. It doesn't help that Mr. Leon telegraphs this world view even further, culminating in a bit of contrived symbolism in the play's final moments.
"Radio Golf" stays relentlessly on message, with little of the animated, seemingly aimless chatter that punctuated so many of Wilson's other works. Nearly every scene involves the two sides pleading their case to Harmond, and Mr. Lennix's body language and gingerly inflected responses give Harmond the impression of being a great listener, a crucial skill for any aspiring politician. Mr. Lennix creates an initially passive but ultimately convincing protagonist, and if Mr. Leon's direction pushes him into some obvious corners, he wrings plausible drama from Harmond's crisis of convictions.
Wilson included a ranting old savant in almost all of his plays, usually to their detriment. But Mr. Chisholm locates a savvy in Elder Joe that's missing in many of Wilson's comparable characters; he uses his seeming infirmity selectively and tactically, making him an increasingly formidable combatant in the battle over the Hill District's future. "Tomorrow's been following me for a long time," he explains to Harmond. "Everywhere I go it follows me. It ain't caught me yet. Today's faster than tomorrow."
Despite having the smallest cast of the entire 10-play cycle, "Radio Golf" fails to sufficiently flesh out the three other characters. (It's also among Wilson's shortest plays at about two and a half hours, a mere curtain-raiser by Wilsonian standards.) Unfortunately, the sketchiest of these characters is also the play's only woman. Mame is meant to straddle her husband's newfound scruples and Roosevelt's rapacity, but Wilson paid only the slightest lip service to the conflicts inherent in maintaining this balance. As a result, Ms. Pinkins's climactic speech — one in a long series of character-defining arias for Wilson's women — falls flat. Mr. Williams and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Jelks struggle with a similar lack of definition.
Harmond and Old Joe are the grandchildren of characters in "Gem of the Ocean," and while "Radio Golf" doesn't require any prior knowledge of these long-dead characters, Aunt Ester's significance is strangely muted. Her role as the repository of the community's anxieties and agonies, a woman born at the advent of the American slave trade and still alive as late as the 1980s, is crucial in understanding the importance within the community of maintaining her home. But Ester's name isn't even mentioned until the very end of Act I, and her prophetic powers — so central to at least three other Wilson plays — go unexplored here.
Did Wilson assume that audiences would be entirely up to speed this far into the cycle, that Aunt Ester's timelessness required no further explication? It's impossible to know, but seeing that the mention of her age prompted incredulous laughter at a recent performance, a bit more background might have come in handy.
Tomorrow finally caught Aunt Ester, just as it caught August Wilson in 2005. And while the future of Aunt Ester's house remains in question at the end of "Radio Golf," no such doubts exist about Wilson's edifice of 20th-century life in black America. It is a home suffused with wit and soul and a transforming vision. And even if a few rooms would benefit from a touch-up, "Radio Golf" among them, it and its capstone will stand strong and proud for many, many tomorrows.
Open run (138 W. 48th St., between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 212-239-6200).