A Raisin in the Sun
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Ruskin Group Theatre
Through September 17
Lorraine Hansberry is securely enshrined as an important black playwright, but what few people remember nowadays is that she was also a lovely young woman, with gamin charm and an impish sense of humor. I had the privilege of knowing her briefly when I stage managed the first workshop production of her play Les Blancs, at the Actors Studio in New York. (It was a particularly memorable time as it was the week that JFK was assassinated, and during a break in the Sunday dress rehearsal, one of the actors went for coffee and came back to tell us, “Somebody just shot Oswald!”) Hansberry was never again to achieve the success of Raisin in the Sun before her shockingly early death in 1965, at the age of 34.
This fine production of Raisin offers a timely reminder of just how powerful the play can be in the right hands. And director Lita Gaither Owens has assembled a near-perfect cast.
As Lena Younger, the matriarch of her family, Staretta DuPois provides a rich portrait of the quintessential strong black woman: she may be confused by her children’s new-fangled ideas but she’s rock solid in her own beliefs and convictions. And her carefully marcelled hair is a nice period touch.
Redaric Williams delivers a powerhouse performance as her son, Walter Lee. He’s like a domestic version of Oedipus Rex, well-meaning but wrong-headed, tormented by unfulfilled ambitions, and viscerally corroded by shame and guilt when he loses the family’s nest egg. As his long-suffering wife Ruth, Angelle Brooks makes her silences count as strongly as her lines. And Charlotte Williams, as Walter Lee’s sister Beneatha, is charming and scatty on the surface, but deeply serious when the chips are down. She kept reminding me of Hansberry herself, and also of the late great Diana Sands, who played Beneatha in the original Broadway production. Jaden Martin is also effective as the youngest of the Youngers.
The supporting cast is also strong. Kristian Kordula offers a hilarious turn as Beneatha’s rich but clueless boyfriend, and Mohirah Hall is eloquent as the idealistic young Nigerian student who is also Beneatha’s suitor. Jarard Kings scores briefly but tellingly as Bobo, Walter Lee’s unfortunate business partner. And Josh Drennen offers a finely etched cameo as a closet racist who desperately attempts to deny his prejudice.
This play was written in the days when Broadway curtain time was 8:30, and most plays were in three acts, with two intermissions. Now the audience attention span seems shorter, and briefer works are the fashion. Director Owens has followed the current trend of breaking the play into two acts, adding part of Act 2 to an already long first act which, at an hour and 45 minutes, has one praying for intermission. But the performances are worth the time!
An odd note: I was perplexed by the fact that the characters went out the front door to get to the bathroom. I know New York City had tenements with communal toilets, though the bathtub and sink were usually in the kitchen. So I finally concluded that in this case, it was a practical necessity: The semi-in-the-round configuration of the theatre precluded the possibility of a third door in the set.
Ruskin Group Theatre, 300 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m,; through September 17. (310) 397-3244 or www.ruskingrouptheatre.com. Running time: Three hours with one fifteen minute intermission.