BWW Review: A RAISIN IN THE SUN at Williamstown Theatre Festival Breathes New Life into An American Classic
Williamstown Theatre Festival opens its 2019 Season on the Main Stage with Lorraine Hansberry's iconic A RAISIN IN THE SUN marking the 60th anniversary of the Broadway opening of Hansberry's masterpiece.
The Younger family share a cramped, run down, apartment on Chicago's Southside. Lena, the matriarch, shares the bedroom with her college student daughter, Beneatha. Big brother Walter Lee and his wife, Ruth, share a space set-off only by a curtain, and their ten-year-old son, Travis, sleeps on the couch in the living room. The bathroom is down the hall. Despite the dilapidated conditions and the unwelcomed visitors of the pest variety, the close-knit family demonstrate that home is where the heart is and seem to make the best of a bad situation. As they go about their daily activities, the family members share their excitement about the impending arrival of a large sum of money. Lena is uncomfortable about the reason behind the money but wants to use her late husband's life insurance to improve the family's quality of life. Walter Lee wants to use the money to start a business, giving him a chance at becoming an independent man.
Secretly, Ruth agrees with Lina but remains steadfastly loyal to her husband. Wide eyed and idealistic, Beneatha is consumed with exploring all the possibilities available to a vibrant, intelligent, young woman without acknowledging any potential obstacles. Too much so as to concern herself with the money.
As the drama plays out, we learn that Lena is a devout woman who not only puts her faith in the lord, she will not tolerate that faith being questioned. She may not always understand why people do what they do but she tries to be agreeable and supportive, particularly when it comes to her family. Walter Lee is completely self-absorbed. He wants the best for the family
but is fixated on that being his responsibility and is blinded by the need to make good. Ruth appears to be a rock of strength, dutifully tending to the family's needs while she wrestles with fears, doubt, anxiety, and a desperate yearning to escape her current circumstances. Beneatha just wants the right to be different. Eventually the powerful and destructive forces of 1950s America come knocking at the Younger's door.
Directed by Obie Award winner Robert O'Hara, Hansberry's fearless interrogation of hope in the face of racial and economic strife is as provocative and powerful today as when it premiered. In the hands of this talented team, the issues the younger family faces transcend traditional lines and distinctions. Their challenges and aspirations are those found in just about any household.
The members of the talented cast bring nuance and perspective to the characters we have not seen before and make the roles their own.
S. Epatha Merkerson plays Lena with softness and tenderness.
She desperately wants to do the right thing, but it is unsure what that is. She may not always understand her family members or their motivation but is steadfastly supportive and won't be diverted from doing what is best for them. Francois Battiste allows us to see deeply into the character of Walter Lee helping us to
see and feel his passion and drive. Battiste's performance is raw and powerful, He leaves it all up on the stage and allows to see new aspects of the character. Mandi Masden is impressive as Ruth. Her performance is dynamic. She shows great range that allows us to see the strength and importance of her character as the family's gatekeeper as well as fragility and desperation. Nikia Mathis brings an energy to Beneatha as well as a subtle sense of enlightenment that is refreshing and endearing. Eboni Flowers as the Younger's neighbor, Mrs. Johnson brings a bit of comic relief to an otherwise bleak situation and contemptible character.
The cast also includes Kyle Beltran as George Murchison one of Beneatha's suitors, Joshua Echebiri as Joseph Asagai Beneatha's other suitor, Joe Goldammer as Karl Lindner, Warner Miller as Bobo, and Owen Tabaka as Travis.
This production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN is anything but dry. It is plump, juicy, and remarkably relevant. Performances run through Saturday, July 13 at Williamstown Theatre Festival on the campus of Williams College in beautiful Williamstown, MA