Review: “A Raisin in the Sun”

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Where: TimeLine Theatre Company, 615 W. Wellington Ave.
When: through Nov. 17
Tickets: $35-$48
Phone: 773-281-8463, ext. 6

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

TimeLine Theatre Company’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal “A Raisin in the Sun” could be half as good as it is and still have a profound impact. Director Ron OJ Parson and scenic and lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembridge have created such an intimate environment for the play that you’re right there in the tenement with the Younger family, and that shapes how you respond to them and their predicament.

The sensation starts as you walk down a long hallway lined with anonymous numbered doorways, then enter the small auditorium through the same door as the Youngers use and take a seat in one of the sections on three sides of the “apartment.” The cramped quarters include the living room, where 10-year-old Travis sleeps on the old couch; a curtained alcove that serves as Ruth and Walter Lee’s bedroom, and the complete working kitchen with appliances that would have been out of date in the early 1950s when the piece is set. You’re close enough you can see that steam rising from the hot oatmeal Ruth makes for her son, hear the sizzle of the eggs she scrambles in a cast-iron pan for Walter Lee and, later on (thankfully), almost smell the roach poison his sister Beneatha liberally dispenses from a period pump sprayer.

This proximity also highlights the intricacies of the family dynamics–and arguments. Although Hansberry’s work remains relevant partly because it outlines problems of race relations, housing, and poverty that haven’t been solved, her real accomplishment as far as I’m concerned is that she’s written complicated characters we really care about. 

The revelation here is the delicate balance of love, disillusionment, and hope in the relationship between Walter Lee and his wife, Ruth, thanks mainly to Toni Martin’s heartfelt, beautifully understated performance as a weary but not defeated woman who’s worked hard all her life, senses her marriage falling apart, unexpectedly finds herself pregnant, desperately wants to leave the rundown apartment, and doesn’t know what to do about it all. To watch her dancing around with joy when she learns that Lena has used part of her deceased husband’s $10,000 insurance money for a down payment on a house, then sink into anger and despair when she thinks they may not be able to move  because of her husband’s bad judgment is to experience the empathy one hopes for in the theater.

Jerod Haynes’ Walter Lee inspires more sympathy from me than this character usually does. Besides his frustration and feeling of emasculation fueled by everything from this position as a chauffeur for a white man to his mother’s refusal to give him the money for a deal involving a liquor business, we see his softer side in the gentle way he instructs his son Travis (a spunky Alex Henderson on opening night) and treats his wife after Lena gives him control of the money, and he feels like a man. Haynes also does a convincing job with Walter Lee’s crushing defeat and impulse to give up, followed by the sheer will with which he pulls himself together when he knows he has to be a role model for Travis.

Although Mildred Marie Langford looks older than 20, which is supposed to be Beneatha’s age (and Haynes’ Walter Lee seems very youthful for 35), the two have the verbal battles of siblings down pat, including the fact that they’re always shouting at each other. Langford also has mastered the air of an outspoken, opinionated college student who believes she knows all about life, views herself as an independent intellectual, and hesitates to give herself over to rich college boy, George Murchison (Justin James Farley) or idealistic Nigerian student, Joseph Asagai (Daryl Satcher, who has a million watt smile).

Given the thankless role of Karl Lindner, the representative of the homeowners’ organization in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood to which the Youngers plan to move, Chris Rickett cannily avoids becoming a caricature. Of course, we’re rooting for Walter Lee and the others to wipe the phony smile off his face and put him in his place, but there’s a little pity mixed with the indignation.

Greta Oglesby’s Lena is the glue that holds everything together. She understudied the part on Broadway and brings to it a genuine moral authority coupled with what seems like a lifetime of struggling with adversity, prejudice, and the personal sorrows and successes of a generation not so far removed from slavery. While her willingness to forgive Walter Lee’s transgression and blame those who’ve oppressed him suggests the ingrained sexism of the fifties, her unconditional love shines through. The nuances of the different way she interacts with her own children and with Ruth also are there, adding yet another layer.    

Kudos go not only to the set design, but also to the properties design by Nicholas F. Jackson (I wanted to take the curvy chrome toaster home with me). Janice Pytel’s costumes are right on the mark too, and Joshua Horvath’s sound design provides the blues-y undertones. I have a couple of little quibbles about the direction, particularly the way the packing to leave the apartment is handled, but overall this is “A Raison in the Sun” you don’t want to miss.