A family portrait drawn from strength
PROVIDENCE - In his production of "A Raisin in the Sun" at Trinity Repertory Company, Brian McEleney uses some bold directorial strokes to impress upon us that the play is a classic.
The actors begin by assembling onstage to recite the Langston Hughes poem that gave Lorraine Hansberry her title. They'll recite it a second time later on, just in case we missed the point. In the most impassioned scenes, an actor will turn away from the other characters to deliver a speech directly to the audience.
Sometimes these devices feel fresh and powerful; too often, though, they distract from the play's force rather than heightening it. And in any case, the play doesn't need this kind of intervention. Fifty years after it made Hansberry the first African-American woman to see a play of hers produced on Broadway, "A Raisin in the Sun" remains surprisingly current, layered, and moving - in a word, classic.
Trinity's production does not, of course, have the star power of the 2004 Broadway revival (and subsequent TV adaptation) in which Sean Combs put himself onstage with Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald - to say nothing of the original stars, including Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. But it does feature two fine members of its repertory company, Barbara Meek and Joe Wilson Jr. (and a third, Mauro Hantman, in a small but pivotal role), along with local favorite Johnny Lee Davenport, four strong students from the Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium acting program, and two children who alternate in the role of the youngest member of Hansberry's semiautobiographical Younger family.
Working together, these actors reveal the play's strength as an ensemble piece, a communal portrait of a family whose individual members respond in distinctly individual ways to the hopes and struggles they face as black Americans in 1950s Chicago. The plot hinges on the arrival of a $10,000 insurance check, with the dreams that sum inspires in each member of the family, but it's also about the larger forces at work on the Youngers and their world.
At first, Wilson seems too slight, too delicate, for the role of Walter Lee Younger, who's a simmering cauldron of fury at the ways he's been kept, by both society and his powerful mother, from acting on his dreams of striking it rich. Ultimately, though, Wilson uses that very delicacy to deepen his portrait of Walter Lee; he still comes across as explosively full of anger, but he also reveals touching layers of fragility and untapped strength. As Walter Lee grows into his role in life, so too does Wilson into his role in the play.
Wilson's slightness also, by contrast, brings the women around him into clearer focus. Meek invests the matriarch, Lena, with both quiet strength and human fallibility; she also adds a welcome note of self-deprecating humor and feisty wit.
Lynnette R. Freeman is more subdued in the challenging role of Walter Lee's wife, Ruth, whom the script sometimes comes dangerously close to rendering as a mere suffering saint, but she also finds nuance and variety in the part. And Angela K. Thomas is a bubbling, energized delight as Beneatha, the sister who bounces from dreams of medical school to an infatuation with Africa as she struggles, with the rest of the family, to find her place in the sun.
Michael McGarty's airily open set facilitates McEleney's transformation of closed-in conversations into outward-facing soliloquies, but it cuts against the grain of the play; we should feel hemmed in by these tenement rooms, and that's just not possible here. William Lane's costumes, in their specificity and period detail, indicate another and perhaps more successful way to go: investing the play with all the weight of its particular time, and letting its timeless classicism speak for itself.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.