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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
A Raisin In the Sun reviewed b y Elyse Sommer
Has the lowering of the barriers that stood between this family and their dreams and propelled the conflict within their family circle made this landmark play a theatrical artifact? Is it further dated by the fact that it falls within that much maligned genre, the well-made play with its beginning to middle to end dramatic arc and fully furnished set. No more than Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman!
The play's surface issues may have changed but, like Salesman, this compassionate human drama still works its magic on our emotions. As told through the prism of one family's moment of crisis, it retains its pertinence. The plot trigger -- a life insurance check from Walter Younger Sr. -- brings into focus the different ways each family member envisions the dream of a better life. For Walter Jr. that money means buying his way into a business and out of a servile job; for his wife it means a home better than the cramped tenement flat they all share; for his sister it means medical school. The mother and family decision maker opts for a house in a white neighborhood. The details of the Youngers' lives may be dated but the power of their story is not, as their problems as people of color are hardly non-existent.
As the out-of-fashion kitchen sink style does not weaken the power and pertinence of Hansberry's play, neither do the shortcomings of this new production at Williamstown. While not trivial, neither are they unmitigated disasters. The claustrophobic realism of the family's Chicago tenement remains as a potent symbol of their compressed and deferred dreams. By building a more impressionist second tier set, director Jack Hofsiss has added an interesting stab at musically linking the characters on the main set to their culture while also providing a breather from the heated dialogue in the living room below. The designers have ably supported his vision and the gospel singers who provide these between scenes mini-concerts on the darkly lit second stage are wonderful. However, while the concept of these gospel interludes is not without merit and aptness (in his adaptation of Hansberry's To Be Young Gifted and Black, a her fomer husband Robert Nemiroff also interspersed pieces of her work with musical fragments), when incidental music stops being incidental it tends to be intrusive, detracting from the buildup of the play's emotional structure.
The other shortcomings rest with the cast. Unfortunately only the two younger women, Viola Davis and Kimberly Elise give truly spectacular performances. Davis, who was so moving and mesmerizing in last season's Off-Broadway production of Everybody's Ruby does not disappoint as Walter's loving and oppressed wife Ruth. Elise is touching and strong as Walter's young sister Beneatha and a fictional stand-in for the author as a young, gifted and black woman with a big dream.
Gloria Forster as the Younger family martriach is imposing and clearly a fine, well-trained actress. However, her performances is too often overly actressy. When in her final scene she literarily and lengthily hugs the scenery (clutching the table at which the family has shared many a meal) you find yourself thinking "get on with it, pick up the plant and exit." (that plant which has survived despite the lack of sunlight is the informing metaphor of these characters' hardiness and the play's vision for a better future).
Ruben Santiago-Hudson's Walter isn't bad but it lacks that special something that makes for a great performance. Both Forster and Santiago-Hudson have some memorable moments, but the shadow of Claudia McNeil and Sidney Poitier (the mother and son in both the original play and the movie that followed) hangs too heavily on their interpretation. The supporting cast is fine but the only standout is Peter Maloney as the representative of the white community that is willing to pay them a handsome profit for not moving into their neighborhood.
As I write this review the heartbreaking news of the untimely death of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife and sister-in-law still dominate the news. How sad that these beautiful young people with everything to live for died before they could fulfill the promise of lives so blessed that no dream seemed too impossible. Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote Raisin, also died much too soon, ( in 1965, at 34) but fortunately, she found her voice at a young enough age to leave this deeply felt play and to write the screenplay for its film version. The play's ability to affect us after all these years is a tribute to the theater generally as well as the playwright's talent and persuasive passision.