Playing the life rather than the symbol is the challenge for any contemporary revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.” Perfs must go beyond the potent iconography of the African-American family in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 landmark play: the seething son oppressed by white society, the Bible-loving matriarch, the aspiring sister searching for her own roots, the steadfast wife holding it all together. Hartford Stage’s production has many moments where life in the Younger family feels authentic, spontaneous and full of vitality. At other times, however, the symbolic weight is just too heavy and precious a burden, and the production feels more well meaning than well played.
Whether we’re in the midst of a genuine moment or speechifying, however, the power of Hansberry’s heartfelt play remains. One could feel the rapt audience engagement in the story of a loving, flawed, complex African-American family trying to survive — and even triumph — in turbulent times.
For “Raisin in the Sun,” that time is 1950s Chicago, as the civil rights movement is gaining momentum. But revivals of the play continue to feel relevant because the issues of race, identity and the American Dream still face us. Hansberry’s naturalistic style, her sympathetically drawn characters and well-crafted story make the work just as involving now as it was then. The trick is to avoid the sentimentality, lessen the didactic moments and keep it real.
Some solid perfs make this production, generally well helmed by Seret Scott, satisfying. Billy Eugene Jones credibly navigates the many sides of Walter Lee Younger, the 35-year-old son filled with both rage and hope as he sees his dreams on the verge of collapsing. As his wife Ruth, April Yvette Thompson shows strength, vulnerability and love, sometimes beautifully all at once.
Lynda Gravatt as matriarch Lena plays the steel as well as the sugar of her character, a righteous religious woman with her eye on the prize. There’s an occasional hint of mugging, and the last moment of the play is marred by unfortunate shtick. But overall, it is a commanding and admirable perf.
Less successful is Crystal Noelle as younger sister Beneatha, a woman in search of herself in a rapidly changing society. But her despair, anger and confusion lack power here.
Albert Jones is too much the caricature of the privileged son and Warner Miller as the African visitor gets mired in an accent and misses the lesson his character shares.
Milan Dragicevich does well with a subtle, low-key perf as the representative of the new white neighborhood that is not so welcoming to the Youngers.