Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Most Welcome Introduction to 'A Raisin in the Sun' -- Chicago Theater Review

Chicago Theater Review

A Raisin in the Sun
by Lorraine Hansberry
directed by Ron OJ Parson
TimeLine Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 7

I certainly won't suggest that I've seen every play that could be considered great and/or important.

But of those I'm aware of, I have attended many that could be regarded as works everyone should see:

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, My Three Sons and The Crucible; Tennesee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh, Edward Albee's Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Neil Simon's The Odd Couple and Lost in Yonkers, David Mamet's American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, Shakespeare's Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice and more contemporary classics like David Auburn's Proof, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, Tracy Letts' August: Osage County and Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. 

To this esteemed--and not nearly comprehensive--list, I can now add Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.

No, I never even read it in high school, or saw the movie, or saw the musical version titled simply Raisin.

The closest I came was seeing Bruce Norris' terrific (and recent Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning) Clybourne Park, which plays off A Raisin in the Sun by imagining what might have happened in the years before--and long after--Hansberry's narrative.

Based in part on real-life events involving Hansberry's own family, and taking its name from a line in a Langston Hughes poem, A Raisin in the Sun chronicles the Youngers, a multi-generational African-American family living together on Chicago's South Side in the early 1950s.

The central character is seemingly Walter Lee Younger, who from the characterization and the casting at TimeLine Theatre appears to be somewhere in his 30s. Though I say this without any acute point of comparison, Jerod Haynes seems to play the role perfectly. (In a new Broadway revival next year, Denzel Washington will play the role. While Denzel can do anything he wants--and I would hope to see it--it would seem that he's a bit old to be playing Walter, at least as written with a son of about 10.)

Walter works as a chauffeur and while his wife Ruth--wonderfully played here by Toni Martin--seems to be content with their lot in life, Walter bristles with a desire, perhaps even a desperation, to do something more with his.

His disquiet is exacerbated by the anticipation of his mother--also superbly acted by Greta Oglesby--coming into a sizable sum of money due to the passing of Walter's father.

Although this is a famous play that has been around for over 50 years I don't want to reveal everything that happens. But while it involves less stage time than I expected, the crux of the storyline centers around Mama Younger's decision to purchase a house for her family that happens to be in a white neighborhood.

The bigotry the Youngers encounter is ugly, perhaps all the more so for the way it is depicted here, cased in 1950's decorum and "wouldn't it be better for you (not to move here)" bullshit, embodied by Karl Lindner, a representative from the new neighborhood (well-acted by Chris Rickett).

Although it debuted on Broadway in 1959, Hansberry began writing A Raisin in the Sun in the early 50s, prior to Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Era and Malcolm X, so it's quite impressive and somewhat eerie how prescient she was. And sad that all these years later, even with a black man in the White House, it feels like this play could be set in the present day. Other than some of the manner of dress, there is really nothing about Raisin that feels dated.

And as always, TimeLine--one of Chicago's best theaters--does an outstanding job staging it. The acting
is terrific, and given the close quarters of the auditorium, you almost feel you are in the Youngers' home with them.

As a small quibble on a first-time viewing--and explanation for not quite giving it @@@@@--I felt the 3-hour play took a bit too much time getting to the central crisis. I appreciated how Hansberry sets up all her characters, including Walter's sister Bennie (Mildred Marie Langford, also stellar) and a pair of suitors meant to serve as symbols, but I can't say I was truly riveted until the storyline focused more overtly on the family's decision to relocate.

Still, this is clearly a play that deserves its revered stature, and more frequent productions than it seems to get (since I started attending theater regularly in the early 21st century, I've never had a chance to see it in Chicago). Deservedly, it has been consistently sold out at TimeLine since opening in August, and its few remaining performances seem to be.

But TimeLine does have a standby policy, so if you're able to get to A Raisin in the Sun, you really should. And it not, perhaps next spring on Broadway with Denzel. Even if this may truly have been a better introduction.

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