Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Theater Review: “A Raisin in the Sun” Revival Is Eclipsed by Director’s Vision

A Raisin in the Sun (c) Joan Marcus

Theater Review: A Raisin in the Sun 
The Public Theater 

Premise: The Younger family, which includes matriarch and recently widowed Lena (Tonya Pinkins), son Walter (Francois Battiste), daughter-in-law Ruth (Mandi Masden), grandson Travis (Toussaint Battiste, Camden McKinnon alternating in the role) and younger daughter, Beneatha (Paige Gilbert), are all awaiting the life insurance money after the death of Lena’s husband. They live in Lena’s small, rundown apartment on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s, and she has her mind set on buying a house for her family. Walter, who is sick of his job as limo driver, would rather Lena give him the money to invest in a liquor store with his friends. Beneatha is in college, studying to become a doctor, and could use the money for med school. Lena has to decide between Walter, Beneatha or a down payment on a house in the white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. Will this money actually be a new start for the Younger family or will it only add to their troubles? 

A Raisin in the Sun (c) Joan Marcus

My Take: 18 years after the acclaimed Broadway revival, directed by Kenny Leon with a cast that included Sean Combs, Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad, director Robert O’Hara has reimagined the classic 1959 Lorraine Hansberry play in an astonishing if not quite admirable way. Like his “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” last season, O’Hara’s direction is the star of the show, and he starts by having the Younger family talk over each other, usually when they are arguing with each other. This makes the play’s familial issues that could otherwise feel rather dated, now feel like a Jerry Springer episode. The actors commit to this concept admirably, and they do shed new dimensions to the play. O’Hara also reinserts a deleted scene (that was in the published script) with a nosy neighbor as well as create a new character of his own, both to portend to the more tragic aspects of the play. All of this leads to O’Hara’s coup de theatre ending, that used to be the foray of British theater directors (remember “An Inspector Calls?”), and as bold as it is, has also become tiresome. This the second play at the Public, along with the recently closed “Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge”) that breaks the fourth wall and implicitly refers to the play we’re seeing. “Baldwin Buckley” did it to implicate itself, while “Raisin,” like so many plays since the pandemic re-opening, implicates the audience, as to say, you came to the theater for drama but what you’re going to get is your complicity to a society that will always doom the Youngers and families like them. I admire the restraint that O’Hara didn’t bring up the house lights as well to punctuate his thesis. There were a lot of teens in the audience who have never seen “A Raisin in the Sun,” and will probably walk away with how pessimistic Hansberry’s play was. I just wish they had also experienced the poetry of her language that sadly takes a backseat in this production. 

A Raisin in the Sun (c) Joan Marcus

VIP: Tonya Pinkins. The veteran actress is ferocious, as she embraces this overtly stoic and tough love version of Lena (almost as a King Lear figure) and then works hard to convince us that she also has a generosity and optimism that leads to her one act that the audience knows is misguided. And when it is thus revealed, O’Hara physicalizes her pain that in other hands would be overkill, but she almost makes it work. Almost. Still, while her anger is palpable (just see how angry she gets about cleaning products), Pinkins is also funny, relatable and ultimately heartbreaking.

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