"A Raisin in the Sun," Westport Country Playhouse

--Irene Backalenick

“A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s classic tale of an African-American family, made its Broadway debut in 1959. It was a landmark event in many respects. Not only was it the first Broadway play written by a black woman, but it marked, for the first time, a probing and honest view of an African-American family, devoid of stereotypes. It was not easy to mount this controversial piece, but faith and determination prevailed. And thanks to producer Philip Rose, director Lloyd Richards, and numerous others who gave support, the show opened to great success.

 

With many productions on stage and screen, “A Raisin” has indeed become a classic, surprisingly weathering the years. Though a fifty-year-old play could be time-worn, its message reduced to cliches, such is not the case. Hansberry’s vibrant characters refuse to lie down. Nor do their concerns, dreams, struggles, overlaid by racism, disappear with time.

 

The Younger family -- the matriarch Lena, her daughter Beneatha and son Walter Lee, his wife Ruth and son Travis -- all have their dreams. Lena has just inherited $10,000, the beneficiary of her late husband’s insurance policy. Each one hopes to use the money differently: Beneatha plans to attend medical school, Walter wants to open a liquor store, while Lena herself hopes for a little home in the suburbs. That she chooses an all-white suburb makes for its own challenges. Hansberry is a gifted playwright, well able to set the scene, develop atmosphere, and get the conflicts, like balls juggled in the air, moving skillfully. Her dialogue is so natural, but impassioned, that the exchanges never falter.

 

And now comes a solid production of the classic, staged at the Westport Country Playhouse and directed by the actor Phylicia Rashad (who won a Tony for her performance in the 2004 Broadway revival of “Raisin”). This production, under Rashad’s firm hand and clear vision, never falters.

 

With good ensemble work all round from Gabriel Brown, Alvin Crawford, Lynda Gravatt, John Hemphill, Edena Hines, Billy Eugene Jones, Luka Kain, Hubert Point-Du Jour, and Susan Kelechi Watson, particularly noteworthy are Jones and Hines as the Younger brother and sister. Their roles call for impassioned outbursts. But the quieter, under-stated performances of Gravatt as the matriarch Lena and Watson as her daughter-in-law are equally poignant.

 

In all, “A Raisin in the Sun” lives on, with appropriate tribute paid in this Westport production.

 

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