The fall theater season is just beginning, but the Everyman Theatre production of "A Raisin in the Sun" surely will qualify as one of its highlights. African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 classic is a period piece with timeless appeal.
It is really brought alive by an excellent cast that makes you feel as if you are witnessing social conditions in segregation-era Chicago in the 1950s. You feel grounded even before the first word of dialogue.
Set designer James Fouchard is quite a carpenter, because his construction of a faded but well-maintained apartment is so persuasive that it's not surprising when one of the characters actually makes scrambled eggs on the kitchen stove.
When family members talk about the dismal view through that kitchen window, the emotional effect admittedly is somewhat marred by lighting designer Jay A. Herzog's habit of having stage lights glaringly reflected in the apartment windows. A badly bungled lighting cue in a bedroom scene doesn't help matters, either.
It's worth making a note of such shortcomings, because they're so out of keeping with what otherwise qualifies as a triumph of set construction and period-suitable furnishings. Just as Hansberry constructed a play in which even the small talk has big implications, everything you see on stage places you within the world inhabited by the Younger family.
You feel secure as you survey this set and then get to meet the individual family members. "A Raisin in the Sun" has such fully three-dimensional characters that every family member completely holds your attention. Although the story indicates that Walter Lee Younger should qualify as the main character, it somehow would not seem right to thereby state that other family members are less crucial to the plot.
Seeing various productions of "A Raisin in the Sun" over the decades also serves as a reminder that the casting of a specific production can pull your attention — and your sympathy — to various family members.
As Walter Lee, KenYatta Rogers embodies the frustration of a young black man whose job as a chauffeur for white clients symbolically means he'll always be driving for somebody else.
Although Rogers certainly makes you feel that frustration, the most powerful emotional charge in this production comes from Dawn Ursula as Walter Lee's wife, Ruth, who quietly works as a maid for white families and yet who is not afraid to speak up when it's called for. Ursula, who has given many fine performances in local theater, has such a wonderfully expressive face that she anchors this production.
Walter Lee and Ruth's young son, Travis, is alternately played by Jaden Derry and Isaiah Pope.
Also no slouch when it comes to being expressive are Fatima Quander as Walter Lee's outspoken sister, Beneatha, who is a college student hoping to go to medical school; and Walter Lee and Beneatha's recently widowed mother, Lena (Lizan Mitchell), in whose long-occupied apartment everybody still dwells.
The socially pointed plot involves Lena awaiting a life insurance-related check that may change the family's fortunes. Individual family members have very different notions about where that money should be spent; and secondary characters also get to offer their opinions about how a black family can achieve upward mobility in a racially divided society.
Their simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking arguments make for exciting theater. If anything, director Jennifer L. Nelson encourages such extroverted performances that some scenes are too broadly acted. Toning down the actors' delivery a bit would enhance the playwright's subtle and scathing commentary.
Speaking about American life in the '50s, the play movingly speaks to us today.
"A Raisin in the Sun" runs through Oct. 16 at Everyman Theatre, at 1727 N. Charles St., in Baltimore. Call 410-752-2208 or go to http://www.everymantheatre.org.