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September 12, 2011

Everyman Theatre's searing production of 'A Raisin in the Sun'

It turns out that lightning can strike in the same place twice, after all.

Less than a year ago, Everyman Theatre presented a revival of a great American play, Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," with a tightly cohesive, exceptionally affecting cast and a note-perfect physical production to match.

Over the weekend, the company unveiled another revival of a great American play, Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," with a tightly cohesive, exceptionally affecting cast and a note-perfect physical production to match.

Drawing upon all-too-real experiences in her own life, Hansberry fashioned a compelling drama of a family trying to fulfill personal dreams, as well as that elusive panacea known as the American dream.

The difference, an acute difference when "A Raisin in the Sun" premiered on Broadway in 1959, is that this family is black.

There is nothing remotely dated about the play. There is nothing manipulative about it, either. Half a century later, it feels fresh and real, still asks questions that sting, still refuses to provide pat answers.

Hansberry opens a window into the African American world with one hand, holds up a mirror to all of us with the other.

The plot of "A Raisin in the Sun" unfolds from a deceptively simple incident, with members of the Younger family, in their well-worn apartment on Chicago's South Side, awaiting the arrival in the mail of an inheritance check and the possibilities it offers.

There are inevitable conflicts among family members over how the money should be spent. Things turn deeper and more unsettling when Lena, the recently widowed matriarch, introduces the prospect of a move into a home in a white neighborhood called Clybourne Park. (That's also the name of the recent, Pulitzer Prize-winning Bruce Norris play, a kind of sequel to the Hansberry classic. Perhaps that work will turn up before too long at Everyman.)

Why Lena makes her choice, and the way the family is affected by the turn of events, is the stuff of arresting drama, heightened by ...

Hansberry's vividly crafted writing, which allows each character to emerge in keen detail.

Directed with a sensitive hand by Jennifer L. Nelson, given a highly evocative set design by James Fouchard and astutely costumed by LeVonne Lindsay, the Everyman staging exerts a potent pull from the start and never lets go.

As Lena, a woman intensely devoted to family and traditional values, Lizan Mitchell gives a performance of shattering emotional impact. She conveys as much with her eyes alone as she does with her lines.

Every wound Lena has ever felt registers in Mitchell's portrayal; every hope does, too. I can't remember the last time an actor had me tearing up so often.

(In the production's only misstep, recorded music -- otherwise well-timed -- intrudes right after Mitchell delivers Lena's heart-stopping lament at the close of Act 2; silence would be far more effective at that crucial moment.)

Ken Yatta Rogers brilliantly captures the propulsive, quixotic, selfish, ultimately brave components that make up Lena's son, Walter Lee. As Walter's practical and tender wife, Ruth, Dawn Ursula does equally impressive and touching work, so subtly nuanced at every turn that even the act of making breakfast communicates richly.

Walter's sister, Beneatha, is a major spark in the play. She's attuned to the growing civil rights movement, seems to sense that a women's rights movement will be next, and is also fascinated with the idea of exploring African culture. Fatima Quander brings admirable vitality to the role; she's likely to grow even more comfortable and natural with it as the show's run continues.

Eric Berryman offers abundant charm as Joseph Asagai, the Nigerian smitten with Beneatha. The rest of the supporting cast is generally sturdy, from young Isaiah Pope as Travis (he alternates in the part with Jaden Derry) to Stephen Patrick Martin as the point man for the not-so-welcoming committee of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association.

Everyman Theatre has hit yet another peak with "A Raisin in the Sun." Theatrical experiences don't come much more involving or rewarding than this.


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:27 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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