Arlington — Theatre Arlington usually reserves a spot in its season for a play that is an American classic, even if some aren’t considered as potent as traditional classics because maybe they’re too comic (Neil Simon) or too new (read: less than 40 years old). No matter your definition of that word, Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 A Raisin in the Sun is indisputably one of the masterpieces of American — and world — drama in the 20th century. It’s a classic in every sense.
It was the first play by a black woman on Broadway, and Theatre Arlington’s production is one of the rare times that a mostly black cast (one minor character is white) is on its stage. Here’s hoping that changes and works by black authors with black casts are seen more often and aren’t only relegated to Black History Month.
Theatre Arlington, which is working to become an Actor’s Equity Association Small Professional Theatre, uses one Equity contract for this show, with Bryan Pitts as Walter Lee, the breadwinner for the Younger family living in an apartment complex in 1960s Chicago. He, along with the other members of this family, have dreams (the play's title comes from a Langston Hughes poem). His mother Lena (Linda Jordan) wants to use an insurance check from her late husband to buy a house in a better neighborhood and put some back for medical school for Beneatha (Lauren Harrison), Walter Lee’s sister. Walter Lee’s wife Ruth (Shaundra Norwood) is looking forward to their son, Travis (King Packard), having his own bed (he currently sleeps on the sofa). Meanwhile, Walter Lee believes that his father’s insurance money will help with an investment that will benefit the family.
Directed by Megan Haratine, this production is pretty solid and benefits from Bryan Stevenson’s set and lighting. It’s the best set of any production of this work I’ve seen. Stevenson puts us in the Younger’s living room, as the script calls for, but by using wall frames with transparent scrims and focused lighting is able to show not only depths of the apartment — such as Walter Lee and Ruth’s bedroom and the hallway where the Youngers and other tenants have to fight for a shared bathroom — but also a stairway in the complex and other residents going about everyday business. It expands their world.
The core ensemble is strong, with especially good work from Norwood as the no-nonsense Ruth and Harrison as the Afrocentrism-obsessed Beneatha — her second act scene with Nigerian intellectual Asagai (Nate Davis in a terrific performance) is this production’s best moment. Pitts has the dramatic heft for the role, but his drunk scene relies too much on uncontrolled staggering, similar to deck workers on a storm-tossed ship. In the minor role of George Murchison, the rich man the family hopes Beneatha will marry, Durant Searcy plays it a bit too bratty.
I’ve seen the last few seconds of the play, as the Youngers exit the apartment for a new adventure, played in different ways — and Haratine’s choice here isn’t one of my favorites. Hansberry’s directions note that Lena leaves last, and then jets back in when she remembers that she left her beloved house plant, before her final exit. In this staging, her plant is with her as she leaves the first time. It’s a minor quibble, but it takes away Hansberry’s sly break of humor in a happy-cry ending.
Like other classics in the American canon, from Our Town to Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun is always worth a revisit. There’s one weekend left at Theatre Arlington; make it a priority.