A venerable and important play, an acclaimed playwright, a proven director, a capable cast, and more leads one to expect Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun to be a must-see of the current season. Yet the performance on opening night was both unripe and lacking a strong ensemble feeling that simply must be there for this beloved play to fire on all burners.
A Raisin in the Sun portrays a few weeks in the life of the Youngers, an African-American family living on the Southside of Chicago in the Fifties. The Youngers are about to receive an insurance check for $10,000 from the deceased Mr. Younger’s life insurance policy. All the adults in the family know what he or she would like to do with this money. His widow Mama Lena Younger, wants to buy a house to fulfill a dream she shared with her husband. Their son, Walter Lee, would rather use the money to invest in a liquor store, feeling sure that investment will solve the family’s financial problems forever. Walter’s wife, Ruth, agrees with Mama, and hopes that she and Walter can provide more space and opportunity for their son, Travis. Finally, Beneatha, Walter’s sister wants to use the money for her medical school tuition. She also wishes that her family members were not so interested in joining the white world. Beneatha instead tries to find her identity by looking back to the past and to Africa.
A Tony Award nominated 1959 Broadway hit play, A Raisin in the Sun spawned a revered film with Sidney Poitier and the Broadway cast, has seen two well-received revivals, a faithful musical version, and two lauded television films. It has a by now well-worn plot. But, for younger audience members who may never experienced it, no spoilers here. Director Timothy McCuen Piggee obviously loves this play, but his Younger family speak altogether too slowly, leading to a plodding pace at times. As Walter Lee, Richard Prioleau delivers his big monologues and speeches with fire, but seldom connects with his key co-stars. Mia Ellis is compelling, passionate and compassionate as Ruth, a woman whose own hopes and dreams have all been put on hold or squelched in favor of taking care of her husband, their son Travis and the family she married into. In the role of Mama Lena, Denise Burse, though smaller in height and figure than many others seen in the role, is right on the money, delivering a sage, feisty, Church loving woman wholeheartedly, despite their failings. As Beneatha, Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako has the show-stealing role and indeed came near to doing just that on opening, using the humor and raw angry moments playwright Hansberry bestowed to the character.
As Ruth and Walter Lee’s pre-adolescent son Travis, Jalani Clemmons has the right look, but too much energy and too little volume to do right in the part. Beneatha is given two very different suitors, George Murchison played by Tré Cotton, hilarious yet not caricatured, and Ricardi Charles Fabre, who keeps it simple, sincere, and proud as Joseph Asagi, an African student whom Beneatha is tempted to move back with to his home. The usually sturdy Charles Leggett seems ill at ease and physically miscast as a Karl Lindner, a wormy representative of a neighborhood group sent to persuade Mama from moving her family to a lily-white neighborhood.
Scenic designer Michael Ganio seems to let the confines of the Younger’s lower class Chicago apartment confine him from designing it with more originality, but lighting designer Robert J. Aguilar’s work is right on the mark, and Melanie Taylor Burgess’ costumes evoke the era and class distinction of the Youngers, and their outside acquaintances.
A Raisin in the Sun runs through October 30th at the Seattle Rep through October 30th. For tickets or information contact the Seattle Rep box office at 206-443-2222 or go online at seattlerep.org.