Lorraine Hansberry died just three months after The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window began its debut on Broadway in 1964. But even in her last days, she was revising the script from her sick bed based on notes brought over from the theatre. The work, in some ways, can be considered unfinished—Hansberry faced so many challenges in its final stages. That’s one of the reasons it’s not as well-known as her A Raisin in the Sun. But it doesn't mean the play isn't as challenging or provocative; while Raisin is about a Black family navigating a racist America, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window is about whiteness.
Now, the Brooklyn Academy of Music presents a rare revival of the play through March 19 with Rachel Brosnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) starring opposite Oscar Isaac (Star Wars). “I think that's part of the excitement about playing it,” Isaac shares. “In some ways, I feel like I'm approaching it like a musician. There's this beautiful, forgotten Bach piece. We get to sharpen up our instruments, go out and play the piece for people so they can hear it.”
The pair play a married couple living a Bohemian life in 1960s Greenwich Village. Brosnahan plays Iris, a struggling actress, while Isaac is Sidney, a struggling intellectual. The question is: Can the marriage survive their barbed words and the pressure of Sidney’s progressive ideals? Despite being written nearly six decades ago, Hansberry’s incisive look into the progressive political movements and dynamics of marriage “feels modern,” as Brosnahan puts it: “It’s a conversation about dominantly white intellectuals, the new wave of a progressive movement, and a new wave of feminism that was happening in the 1960s. But all those same conversations feel like [the ones] we’re having today.”
Adds Isaac: “It’s speaking to people that feel a bit disenfranchised by the whole political game.” He also calls the play Hansberry’s “call to care.” As he astutely points out, there’s an exhaustion in those who are politically and socially active over the long haul, a trial which his character Sidney faces. For the actor, the play is asking, “How do you continue to care, to stay engaged—even when you don’t know the right answer, even when you don’t know what to do?” These core explorations appear alongside Hansberry calling out the fallible white allies who still need to learn, to grow, and to recommit themselves to the cause.
These are questions audience will be faced with in real time as they get to know Sidney, whose progressivism is marred by male chauvinism and the use of homophobic slurs. Isaac finds him ultimately redeemable, saying, “He’s trying, and he cares.” To the actor, Hansberry delivers a complex look at an ally who still has work to do. “I think that’s part of the beauty of what she’s writing about; she’s not allowing any easy judgments,” Isaac shares. “She reveals a bursting humanity. It’s complicated, it’s ugly, and it’s very, very alive.” In his opinion, so often one’s faults (and problematic opinions) become the end of the conversation today, but Hansberry refuses for that to be the case in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. The conversation must continue. There’s no such thing as cancellation in Hansberry’s world.
For Brosnahan, Iris’s struggle is one of self-actualization. As the middle sister of three, she is placed directly between the second wave feminism of her elder sister and the third wave of her younger. Caught between tradition and progressivism, Iris asks new questions about who she is and who she wants to be. “We meet her at a moment of enormous change,” the actor says. At the core of Iris is an intelligent, resourceful, and honest character who has always orchestrated the changes in her life from leaving her small hometown to searching for a man like Sidney. As Brosnahan explains, “For a long time, that satiated her. And now we're finding her in a moment where she feels stagnant. And she's not quite sure how to get what she needs next.”
One can’t help but draw the parallels between Iris and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s title character. In the television series, now in its fourth season, Brosnahan plays Midge, a 1960s housewife. After Midge’s husband tells her he wants a divorce, she decides to become a comedian. While Midge comes from the Upper West Side and pursuing tradition, she ultimately pioneers a path for herself in a male-dominated profession with natural confidence and charisma.
When it comes to the characters of Midge versus Iris, Brosnahan finds them to be “almost opposite, in both the obvious ways, and ways with a bit more nuance.” Unlike Midge, Iris “isn't quite certain how she wants to use” her voice yet. Though that doesn’t stop Iris from trying to figure out how: from singing and acting in the theatre, to standing up to Sidney. Says Brosnahan, “She’s beginning to know that she needs something different than what she has. She wants to forge her own path, and clarify it for no one else but herself.” One of Iris’ biggest obstacles? Her husband.
With such tension, the drama between Iris and Sidney unfolds in verbal spats. Some of the dynamics at play between Iris and Sidney include a significant age gap, and Sidney’s sense of intellectual superiority. As a struggling actress, Iris finds herself trapped in the roles men want her to play for them at work, and at home. Iris appeases Sidney until she can no longer sustain playing a role she’s tired of.
The layers of their marriage, good and bad, mean that the audience ultimately sees the characters at their highest and their lowest. It requires the actors to embody “the ugliness” and “pathetic-ness” of these characters, something to which Isaac says Brosnahan is, “totally committed,” adding, “I think for us, it's going to be about finding the joy in the game, within all that kind of ugliness that we're saying to each other, with all of the salt and vinegar—finding the honey that you hear, as well.”
How does one process the constant switch in their marriage from spewing vitriol to loving connection? For Isaac, he’s calls it, “part of their game.” If that phrase does little to reassure your doubts about how healthy Iris and Sidney’s marriage is, you’re not alone. “It's wrong by all our modern standards, and yet there’s kind of a deeper honesty beneath it,” says Isaac.
In portraying such a volatile romantic relationship, how have Isaac and Brosnahan built up their own relationship as colleagues? “I think the two really important things are trust and boundaries,” Isaac answers. “That’s what the first deal is about, establishing a real understanding about what it is we're doing and how we're doing it together.”
Trust is also at the core of Brosnahan’s takeaway from the play on what makes or breaks a marriage. “More specifically,” she says, “it’s the ability to trust that you can change together, and a commitment to changing together.”
Despite the play’s heavy questions, and sometimes-unlikeable central characters, Brosnahan and Isaac find optimism in The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. “Lorraine was someone who believed deeply in people and their ability to change,” Brosnahan says. It’s an important element to the dramatic value of the play, as that possibility for redemption is vital for audiences to invest in and connect with the work’s characters. At the end of the day, humans don’t completely change overnight; instead it’s a series of small steps. When it comes to Iris, Brosnahan points out, “she's the only person who leaves. And she also comes back, but she's not exactly where she started.” As the actor says about Hansberry, “I appreciate that she’s acknowledging that even small change is hopeful.”
See more photos of Oscar Isaac and Rachel Brosnahan below.