Theater review: 'A Raisin in the Sun' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
A reprise of the 2011 Ebony Repertory Theatre production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” directed by Phylicia Rashad, opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, and for anyone wishing to encounter or re-encounter this classic by Lorraine Hansberry, this is a clear-eyed, emotionally stirring rendition.
To be honest, I don’t think I could be friends with anyone who wasn’t moved by the ending of this drama, about an African American family’s struggle to leave its dark, run-down apartment on Chicago’s South Side for a bright modest house in an unwelcoming white part of town. And this revival succeeds in my book by passing the lump in the throat test. I felt the swell around my Adam’s apple as the play built toward its climax, and when Lena Younger, the widowed mother now played by Kim Staunton (L. Scott Caldwell performed the part last year), retrieves her poor, persevering potted plant before the lights go down, my eyes went moist as they inevitably do during this indelible scene.
Center Theatre Group has billed this offering as part of “A Special Masterpiece Event” that includes the Broadway-bound production of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Clybourne Park” at the Mark Taper Forum. Norris’ drama, which opens Wednesday, tells the story of the house that the Younger family is heading to at the end of “A Raisin in the Sun,” imagining the history just prior to the sale and then jumping 50 years later to a completely different cultural and demographic landscape.
“A Raisin in the Sun” isn’t a prerequisite for “Clybourne Park.” Karl, the representative of the racist Clybourne Park Improvement Assn. who tries to bribe the Youngers into giving up their dream, is the only character holdover. But seeing both works will certainly provide a richer artistic experience. Hansberry’s play, one of the all-time great American dramas, certainly deserves the attention, and Norris pays homage not so much by writing a sequel but by exploring the way real estate has served in America as a sociopolitical barometer.
Rashad, best known for her years on “The Cosby Show,” won a Tony for playing Lena in the 2004 Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” and she clearly has a deep understanding of both the text and charged historical context. If there’s a criticism of the production, it’s that her direction is so careful to elucidate the issues and ideas within the play that the moment-to-moment life of the characters sometimes gets short shrift.
At the outset, the cast members seem overly intent on making the Youngers appear exemplary. They may be poor and fed-up, but they couldn’t be tidier or more morally upright. This is all in the play, but the production gives it an artificial emphasis. Scenic designer Michael Ganio meticulously re-creates the apartment, described by Hansberry as “comfortable and well-ordered” yet marked by “weariness.” The effect, however, of the neat-as-a-pin layout, however, is that of a model home, low-income for sure but too uncluttered to be inhabited by a family of five.
Fortunately, these reservations don’t derail the dramatic interest that’s generated by the play’s multiple conflicts. Lena, awaiting the $10,000 life insurance check for her husband’s death, has to decide what to do with the money. Her son, Walter (Kevin T. Carroll), desperately wants to invest it in a liquor store — an idea that neither his worn-out wife, Ruth (Deidrie Henry), nor his tart-tongued sister, Beneatha (Kenya Alexander), thinks is a particularly smart one.
“I’m 35 years old,” Walter says to his wife. “I been married 11 years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room — and all I got to give him is nothing. Nothing but stories about how rich white people live....”
Ruth, who has just discovered that she’s pregnant, bears the brunt of Walter’s seething frustration. She distracts herself as best she can in this overcrowded home by closely looking after her sweet-natured son, Travis (Brandon David Brown), and cleaning and ironing everything in sight. But she’s finding it harder to hide her disappointment and despair.
Beneatha, determined to go to medical school, hopes that a portion of the insurance money will go toward her education. Fiercely independent, she is always causing a stir with her novel opinions, discarding one for another as she makes her way in a world that’s changing rapidly though not rapidly enough for people of color. Her two beaus, George Murchison (Jason Dirden), a conservative young man from an affluent African American family, and Joseph Asagai (Amad Jackson), a Nigerian student with ardently held progressive convictions, represent the assimilationist and Afrocentric worldviews she’s toggling between.
The plot, which escalates through a series of crises involving the fate of that insurance check, brings the family to a confrontation with the devil, otherwise known as Karl (Scott Mosenson), who appears at the Youngers’ door with his nefarious offer. Looking as though he should be riding in a hearse, he forces Walter to discover what he truly believes in. Hansberry gives us hope, but only of the realistic kind. The future is stark and forbidding, but with love, courage and stamina, it can be reached with a measure of dignity and self-respect.
This is a solid if unexceptional cast, which is to say there aren’t any real standouts. Staunton and Carroll strain a bit in their big scenes, depriving the poignancy of some of its natural potency, which might actually be a good thing. (How many tears can a theater hold before there’s a plumbing emergency?) But the best thing about this Ebony Repertory Theatre production is the way the warmth of the ensemble radiates the heartfelt message of this timeless and beautiful play.
-- Charles McNulty
"A Raisin in the Sun," Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends February 19. $20 to $50. (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Running time: 2 hour, 35 minutes
Photos: Upper: Kevin T. Carroll and Deidrie Henry. Lower: Kim Staunton and Brandon David Brown in foreground with Deidrie Henry in background. Credit: Anne Cusack/ Los Angeles Times