Theatre ReviewsTom Williams


By Regina Taylor


Directed by Anna D. Shapiro

At the Goodman Theatre

Regina Taylor’s Magnolia unfolds as an American ode to The Cherry Orchid.

Regina Taylor’s world premiere, Magnolia, deftly deals with change during one of the most pivotal years of the 20th Century—1963. Set in Atlanta at Black Pearl’s Restaurant and Kerry’s Restaurant, we meet Thomas (the commanding John Earl Jelks)—a self-made Black millionaire real estate developer and former working resident of Magnolia Estate—a plantation outside of Atlanta.

Thomas lives well on the Black side of “Peyton’s Wall”—the racial dividing line in 1963 Atlanta. Black Pearl is a Black dinner where Thomas has eaten for years. The new waitress/cook is Maya (Tyla Abercrombie) who symbolizes the young rebellious Black youth and her boyfriend Meshach Tory O. Davis —a Black youth working three jobs and going to school to get ahead—are both respectful and fearful of Thomas.

At Kerry’s Lily (Annette O’Toole)—the matriarch of Magnolia Estate and her brother, Beau (John Judd) are struggling to keep their beloved Estate from foreclosure. These two are naïve to the social changes surrounding them much like the folks in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchid. Lily’s two daughters—Anna (Caitlin Collins) and Ariel (Carrie Coon) each symbolize the new generation. The Black household workers are also nervous as to what will happen to them of the Estate is sold. Carlotta (the hilarious Roxanne Reese) steals her scenes as the old time vaudevillian entertainer turned nurse maid who offers comic relief as she laments her plight. Ernest Perry, Jr. plays the 100 year old butler.

Regina Taylor weaves her drama with memorable characters each battling with the sweeping events of 1963 that comprise both personal and societal changes that none of the characters fully comprehend. The color line in Atlanta is being challenged; Martin Luther King is marching; Kennedy has ushered new hope in America; and Magnolia Estate is in foreclosure. We witness how Blacks and whites commingle—to a point—with the lines clearly followed as segregation still rules.

Taylor personalizes the struggle that change necessities in this time of turmoil. The journey that each character makes to come to terms with their new world is highly dramatized in this richly symbolized drama. This epic tale is engrossing and deeply truthful. You’ll not soon forget such characters as Roxanne Reese’s Carlotta or John Earl Jelks’ Thomas nor Annette O’ Toole’s wretched Lily. Taylor’s story could use a first act trimming and a faster pace but ultimately Magnolia is a meaningful saga of people caught up as events seem to overwhelm them. Each character exhibits dignity and compassion. Thomas’ determination to change the Magnolia Estate and tame the beasts of the past is effectively depicted. I now know the significance of the roots of a magnolia tree. I think most will enjoy Taylor’s Magnolia. I know I did.


Tom Williams

Jeff Recommended

At the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL tickets $25 – $70,, running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission, Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 2 & 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2 7 7:30 pm, Special Tuesday performance on April 7 at 7:30 pm.

Leave a Reply