Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Raisin in the Sun, Cleveland Play House

(David Alan Anderson as Walter Lee Younger and Franchelle Stewart Dorn as his mom, Lena)

Yeah, yeah, you’ve seen it before. Seems like A Raisin in the Sun has been around forever, and it usually pops up in February when non-African-American theaters do their bit to recognize Black History Month. Well, guess what? Thanks to Barack Obama, November may be the new Black History Month, and this production at the Cleveland Play House is a stellar contribution to a month we will all remember for years to come.

A tried and true “kitchen sink” drama by Lorraine Hansberry, Raisin continues to age well since the 1950s-era personal dynamics at work are so genuine, and so timeless. The Younger family is on the cusp of a new life, thanks to a ten-grand check that is coming from the life insurance policy of the recently deceased family patriarch.

But each member of the clan has different designs on the cash: Widow Lena and her daughter-in-law Ruth want to move to a new house, while Lena’s son and Ruth’s husband Walter Lee has his eye on opening a liquor store and getting rid of his chauffeur’s uniform forever. And Walter’s sister Beneatha wants to invest some of the loot in her medical education (when she’s not entertaining one of her two beaus, Nigerian Joseph Asagai and rich-kid-on-the-make George Murchison).

Guest director Lou Bellamy does a brilliant job of forging a full and resonant ensemble performance from his talented cast, paying precise attention to the many small moments and beats that make every character spring to life. That focus on detail, combined with the believably real tenement-flat set design by Vicki Smith, helps the audience enter into the Youngers’ world with ease—and with unflagging fascination.

In a strong team of players, David Alan Anderson stands out. His Walter is a load of contradictions—a loving husband who often feels distant from his wife, a hard worker who despises his occupation, and a dreamer who has no way to make his dreams come true. Weaving a disarmingly comic undercurrent through his scenes, Anderson makes Walter compellingly, and often achingly, present at all times.

Also excellent is Franchelle Stewart Dorn, who imbues elderly Lena with an unquenchable spirit and a strong moral sense. When she decides to use the insurance money to buy a house in a white neighborhood, it sends Walter into a major funk. But she throws Walter a lifeline, which leads a questionable decision by Walter and a crisis for the whole family.

Erika LaVonn as Ruth provides a strong and steady center for the play as well as the family, and her euphoric reaction to hearing about her new house is not overdone and, yet, nearly transcendent. Although she starts slowly and a bit unsteadily, with too many forced reactions, Bakesta King manages to find many good moments as Beneatha, especially when she is glorying in the prospect of moving to Africa with Joseph.

Of course, the play teeters on the fulcrum of one scene when a white representative from the new neighborhood, Karl Lindner, visits the Youngers and tries to dissuade them from moving in. Patrick O’Brien is perfect as this soft-spoken bigot representing the suburban Caucasian attitude of the time, explaining that “You’ll be happier with your own people.”

Playwright Hansberry is masterful at touching all the hot buttons for an African-American family in transition. And this Play House production, solid and exquisitely professional from start to finish, does her renowned script magnificent justice.

A Raisin in the Sun
Through November 30 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

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