The intelligence, honesty and theatrical savvy the late Lorraine Hansberry displayed in her 1959 “A Raisin in the Sun,” the first Broadway play by a black woman, has stood it in good stead. Forty years on, it isn’t remotely dated — not least because there are still white neighborhoods that don’t want black families moving in — and continues to be involving and moving as the aspirations and relationships of the Younger family unfold in their Chicago ghetto home. The play is sometimes schematic in its well-made way, and with its three acts converted into two (the first running nearly 100 minutes), it might benefit from judicious cutting. But the Williamstown Theater Festival revival, strongly cast and fervently acted and directed, gives every evidence of being a winner.
The production is singularly blessed with its actresses, beginning with Viola Davis as Ruth Younger, the long-suffering wife of 35-year-old chauffeur Walter Lee Younger (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), and Kimberly Elise as Walter Lee’s 20 -year-old sister Beneatha, an idealist and God-denier who wants to be a doctor. Both are absolutely right, vital and alive.
Strictly speaking, Gloria Foster is quite wrong for the role of the household matriarch. She’s nobody’s idea of a “colored” cleaning woman in 1940s-’50s Chicago — she’s too grand, studied and monumental, and sometimes deliberate to the point of slowing down the production. And yet her performance is fascinating. At her best, she’s unquestionably powerful and commanding.As the deeply frustrated Walter Lee, perhaps the play’s most difficult role, Santiago-Hudson is also richly believable, as are Dion Graham and Donn Swaby as the two men in Beneatha’s life. The rest of the roles are also well cast and performed.
Jack Hofsiss’ direction is sensitive and astute, drawing the audience into sympathy with the dilemmas faced by the Youngers as they get ready to become the first black family in a white neighborhood, despite attempts by its “improvement” association to buy them off. (A decision to use gospel singers to bridge scenes is Hofsiss’ only mistake.)
By the end of the play, the audience has grown to know the Youngers and wish them well. At one point, when Walter Lee is particularly depressed, he turns on his wife Ruth. At the performance reviewed, a collective sigh of disappointment swept through thetheater — a tribute to both Hansberry’s talent and the quality of the production. The playwright’s death from cancer in 1965 at the age of 34 was undoubtedly a loss the American theater could ill afford.