A Raisin in the Sun
Through Nov. 3 at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, westportplayhouse.org
Better late than never, Lorraine Hansberry's game-changing 1959 Broadway hit A Raisin in the Sun is making its Westport Country Playhouse debut. With some shows, you're not so surprised never played the place before. But Raisin was an immediate American theater classic upon its East Coast premiere in 1959. You'd think it would have been a natural for the WCP in its old summer-stock days, when urban and Southern melodramas were all the rage.
Connecticut did have a major stake in the initial success of A Raisin in the Sun. The pre-Broadway try-out was at the Shubert in New Haven, and Hansberry made major rewrites while staying at the Taft Hotel. That legendary Broadway production was directed by Lloyd Richards, who later became Artistic Director of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center and Dean of the Yale School of Drama, where he furthered the careers of numerous other major playwrights.
A Raisin in the Sun is the play that crystallized the African-American Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s, was openly mocked (as "The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play") in George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum for its oversized influence on decades worth of African-American drama and inspired Bruce Norris' recent caustic contemporary culture clash Clybourne Park, which appropriates an offstage setting and a minor character from A Raisin in the Sun. (The Long Wharf Theatre is doing Clybourne Park in 2013.)
As inspirational as it has become, Hansberry's script itself defies updating or reinterpretation. Realistic sets, Greek Tragedy-grand performances and long cerebral pauses are de rigeur.
There are certainly some strident old-school dramatic outbursts to contend with here. This is not just a show about social injustice in the broad national, '60s Civil Rights sense, but about sensitive individuals being cheated, lied to, talked down to and stolen from. There's a lot of talk about Africa, and assimilation, and real estate values. But there are also bursts of deep inner anguish, high dudgeon that just spills out.
Phylicia Rashad, who won a Tony for playing Younger family matriarch Lena Younger in the major Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun in 2004 (opposite Sean Combs, Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan) is the director now, and sets an even pace and tone even while letting the actors chew the scenery when needed. Rashad lets this production's Lena, Lynda Gravatt do it her own way — wise move, since Gravatt, a veteran of August Wilson dramas and an astute ensemble player, has played Lena to acclaim before, right in Connecticut at Hartford Stage just six years ago.
Gravatt, Edena Hines as her medical-student daughter and Susan Kelechi Watson as longsuffering daughter-in-law Ruth Younger (a far cry from Watson's alluring, outgoing Olivia at Westport Country Playhouse in Twelfth Night a year ago) all find their own characters, taking refreshing risks with some of the line readings and reactions, challenging the expectations of those who know this classic by heart.
As the most scattered, aggressive and unstable of all the characters, the exasperated chauffeur and hopeful entrepreneur Walter Lee Younger, recent Yale school of drama grad Bill Eugene Jones gets loud, soft, weepy and violent in the extreme, yet keeps a central core which makes him seem more impulsive than schizoid.
A Raisin in the Sun, about a close-knit black family in Chicago who are close to being torn apart by the struggles of day-to-day life in a racist and segregated society, still has plenty to say to Connecticut audiences. Pay heed, Westport, to the young, gifted and black legacy of Lorraine Hansberry.