The show: “A Raisin the Sun” at Westport Country Playhouse
First impressions: Emotions run high on stage in a rewarding production of Lorraine Hansberry’s compassionate, thematically-rich 1959 play; for the members in the audience, too, who are still engrossed and moved as they follow the ups and downs of members of the Younger Family as they struggle to gain their deferred American Dream.
Lynda Gravátt, as matriarch Lena Younger, is the heart and soul of the slice-of-life play’s loving-but-troubled family — and the production, too — and gives a performance to cherish. Phylicia Rashad (who played the role in the 2006 Broadway revival) stages the revival of this naturalistic work that is honest, true and moving.
Didn’t Gravátt also do the role at Hartford Stage several seasons back?: Yes, in 2006, as did Billy Eugene Jones who again plays Walter Lee Younger, the seething son who feels that life has shut him out.
But there’s something about the Westport production that I find so much more moving and satisfying. All the actors play not just symbols but real people whom the audience deeply cares about.
Hansberry sews many threads and themes in her rich tapestry and any one of them — the diminution of the black man, the exploration of African roots, abortion, the African Dispora and its legacy, the role of church, not to mention white resistance to integration — could unravel a production if not staged with a sure, skilled and unsentimental-yet-sensitive hand.
What’s it about?: At the play’s start, the Younger family is about to receive $10,000 in insurance money following the death of its hard-working father. The son Walter sees it as a chance to invest in a liquor store with questionable partners. There’s also the needs of Daughter Beneatha wants to use the money who want to become a doctor. And then there’s the possibility of moving out of the family’s tiny roach-infested apartment in the south side of Chicago to a better neighborhood.
And the performances?: Jones is terrific as Walter Lee, conveying in finely measured ways the swirl of hope, bitterness, joy and anger. Witnessing his struggle, fall and ultimate resurrection, we believe every moment, good and bad. He is especially effective in two scenes: one in which he shares dreams with his 10-year-old son Travis (nicely played by Luka Kain¿) and then when he falls to his knees in breath-taking despair and shame when his world crashes around him and his family.
Susan Kelechi Watson as Walter Lee’s weary and troubled wife Ruth and Edena Hines as the excitable sister also give heartfelt performances. Watson release of Ruth’s joy that was buried beneath her burdens and Hines’ solitary lament of being the forgotten figure in the family’s crisis were especially touching.
But grounding the family and the production is in Gravátt’s Lena and her reservoir of power, history and humanity, showing not just her character’s strength and dignity but her flaws, doubts and even her silliness. It’s a gem of a performance
Who will like it?: Those who appreciate revisiting American classics.
Who won’t?: People who might belong to the Clybourne Park Welcoming Committee.
For the kids?: Definitely for junior high schoolers and up, especially when prepped. Could make some great parent-child conversations.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less?: Raisin d’être.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: There was a surprising goose-bump moment this time around. when Lena reveals that she has just put down a deposit on a home in a yet-to-be-integrated neighborhood, “Clybourne Park.” The name is also the title of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Bruce Norris play about that neighborhood at the time the Youngers are about to move in (1959), and then 50 years later.
At its mention the my mind “Raisin” audience is flash-forwarded through the next half century and suddenly I’m not just in the Younger’s apartment but rather at the dawn of a new era. For a brief moment, there is a get a peek into history’s arc that gives a new subtext to the Hansberry play.
It will be a special experience for theater goers to also see Long Wharf Theatre’s production of “Clybourne Park” in the spring after seeing “Raisin.” (Special deals are being offered by both theaters.)
The basics: The show runs through Nov. 3 at the theater at 25 Powers Court in Westport. Running time is 2 hours and 25 minutes. Information: 203-227-4177 and 1-888-927-7529 and www.westportplayhouse.org.
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