The evergreen strengths of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” come through clearly in Ebony Rep’s near-flawless production at the Nate Holden. Helmer Phylicia Rashad, the “Cosby Show” mom who scored a 2004 Tony as Hansberry’s considerably more forbidding, biblical matriarch, skillfully maintains a balance between slice-of-life naturalism circa 1950s Chicago and the playwright’s larger theme of deferred dreams, relevant to every era. Funny and suspenseful, perfectly cast from top to bottom, this is a revival to savor.
Michael Ganio’s set heralds the evening’s artistry, with its proud but shabby Southside apartment huddled beneath towering, ill-lit slums to wordlessly explain the Younger family’s passion to escape. Their ticket out is the late patriarch’s $10,000 life-insurance policy, which son Walter (Kevin Carroll) hopes to flip into a liquor-store ownership scheme to redeem the loyalty of wife Ruth (beautifully etched by Deidrie Henry) and son Travis (winning Brandon David Brown).
“I’m a volcano,” Walter proclaims. But though Carroll’s eruptions are mighty, his best moments come when his fires are banked, as when he learns mother Lena (the majestic L. Scott Caldwell) will use the check to purchase a suburban home. The women glow as if sunlit while Carroll retreats into the dim kitchen, shriveled up like the titular raisin of Langston Hughes’ poem. His heartbreak, later redoubled when his revived plan eventually crumbles, becomes ours.
Walter’s obstacles include his own pride and twisted values, and the materialist, racist society in which he lives, but a dramatic character can’t battle abstractions. Hansberry personalized his antagonists within the bosom of his family — Ruth’s impatience with his grandiose fantasies; Lena’s faith clashing with his secular success ethic — and each conflict is brought to vivid life here.
Particularly successful are the fault lines agitated by siblings Walter and Beneatha (Kenya Alexander), whose shared yearning for self-improvement should make them allies. But obsessed with the here and now, he has no patience for her flirtation with African roots, abetted by her Nigerian mentor and beau, Asagai (Amad Jackson, persuasive and seductive). Alexander fully captures a young woman intoxicated yet addled by possibility.
The production moves deliberately but never slowly, tapping into real life’s rhythms without sacrificing Hansberry’s supreme theatricality. Because the personal stakes are always kept high, believability is maintained through the more extravagant, even ritualistic passages evoking the mother continent, and back again to the gripping family drama.
Classic plays, like Lena’s little plant in the kitchen window, need occasional watering and sunshine. A reconsideration as good as the Ebony’s doesn’t just honor its source. It reaffirms the material’s stature.