Meet the Brusteins: Sidney, a self-described bohemian, and his wife, Iris Parodus, an aspiring actress. The time is 1964 and the place is their apartment in Greenwich Village, where impromptu arguments about art, politics and religion are the norm. Sidney and Iris play host to a close group of family and friends who drop in for conversation and the occasional paella dinner.
Iris supports them by working as a waitress. Although they are fond of each other, this is an ill-matched couple: Sidney is an intellectual who dreams of being in the woods; Iris is a former country girl who loves living in the city. Sidney’s desire for Iris to fulfill his fantasy of her as a back woods nymph causes her to lash out at him in frustration.
Sidney has just taken over a local community newsletter. His friend, Alton, pushes him to back another friend, Wally O’Hara, who’s running for a seat in local politics. Sidney declares he no longer cares about politics and won’t take up any more causes, but is persuaded to hang a large political sign in his window.
Iris, who is struggling with her acting career, takes a job on a television commercial selling home permanents. Sidney tells her she’s selling out, which adds to the strain in their marriage. She heads off to a party without inviting him and later moves out.
Meanwhile, Alton has declared his love for Iris’ younger sister, Gloria, not knowing she is a call girl. Mavis, Iris’ older sister, would like to see Gloria settle down, but when she learns that Alton, whose light skin allows him to pass for white, is a Negro, she isn’t supportive.
In a desperate attempt save his marriage, Sidney asks David, the upstairs neighbor, a not-so-closeted homosexual and playwright, whose play has suddenly become a hit, to write a part for Iris in his next play. And to sweeten the deal, he offers to write a positive review of the play in his newspaper.
Wally inexplicably wins the election, and Sidney is excited that change might really happen this time.
Alton has found out the truth about Gloria and decides that he can’t see her, let alone marry her. He asks Sidney to give her his goodbye letter. Mavis, singing Sidney’s praises as a political campaign genius, reveals to him the compromises she has made in her own marriage. After she leaves, Iris enters quietly, hoping to pack up the rest of her things. But before she does, she tells her husband that Wally is controlled by the very people he is supposedly fighting against. She can’t believe Sidney didn’t realize it.
Later that night, Gloria arrives, giddy with excitement about starting a new life with Alton. She has quit the profession and sworn off drugs and booze. When Sidney hands her Alton’s letter, she understands its significance immediately. David comes downstairs looking for Gloria’s “discreet” help with a young man in his apartment. Gloria agrees to participate, but at the last minute, she finds that she can’t. She takes an irreversible step away from the mess she’s in.
The next morning, Iris and Sidney respond to Gloria’s actions and Wally’s hypocrisy. The play ends with the couple declaring their commitment to each other and to caring again about the world.
When The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window first opened at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre on October 14, 1964, Lorraine Hansberry was terminally ill with pancreatic cancer. During the rehearsal process, she did everything she could to assure her play a successful run. But the reviews were generally unfavorable and the cost of mounting a Broadway production formidable.
As part of the valiant efforts to keep the show open, the play moved in mid-December from the Longacre Theatre to the Henry Miller Theatre. In the preface to the New American Library edition of the play, Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s former husband and one of the show’s producers, documented the always turbulent and sometimes successful trials to keep the show open on Broadway. The artistic world kept raising funds to pay the bills; directors and clergy did their bit—even the cast got into the act, passing a hat among the audience.
These efforts weren’t enough to rescue a play of ideas from a public interested mostly in comedies, musicals or imports from Britain. On the evening of January 12, 1965, the Henry Miller stayed dark. The gesture was for Hansberry, who had died that morning. Following the self-imposed hiatus that night, the show closed after 101 performances.
Critic John Braine, who loved the play, commented: “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is a great play. The New York drama critics, partly because of the crippling limitations under which they work and partly because of the narrowness of their prejudices, did not recognize the play’s greatness. I am convinced that, sooner or later, with one production or another, in this country or another, the public’s judgment will prove better.”
While The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window has had little commercial success, OSF’s production brings a new chance to examine how Hansberry passes, in her words, “the supreme test of technical skill and creative imagination . . . to render the infinite varieties of the human spirit—which invariably hangs between despair and joy.”
An edited version reprinted from OSF’s 2014 Illuminations, a 64-page guide to the season’s plays. For more information, or to buy the full Illuminations, click here. Members at the Patron level and above and teachers who bring a school groups to OSF receive a free copy of Illuminations.