Olney mounts fine production of 'Raisin in the Sun' Theater review @

October 16, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There's a lot of talk about dreams in Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." Lena Younger, the matriarch of the family, dreams of escaping her ghetto apartment and owning a small, two-story house. Walter, her discontented son, dreams of quitting his job as a chauffeur and opening a liquor store. And Beneatha, Walter's college student sister, dreams of going to medical school.

When Hansberry's play opened in 1959, it was groundbreaking not only because it was the first Broadway play by a female black playwright, but also because of the varied facets of black society it portrayed. In many ways, the play itself must have seemed a dream come true.

Four decades later, "A Raisin in the Sun" has become a modern American classic, and Olney Theatre Center has honored that status with a dream production.

At its core are the excellent performances of Rebecca Rice -- an associate artist at Center Stage -- as Lena, or "Mama," and Craig Wallace as her son Walter. As the recently widowed Mama, trying to decide how best to use the $10,000 from her late husband's insurance policy, Rice embodies maternal strength.

George C. Wolfe satirized this character in his play, "The Colored Museum." But Rice's Mama is far from a spoof. Repeatedly, she tries to imbue discouraged, embittered Walter with some of her backbone and goodness. The first time comes after she refuses to let him invest the insurance money in a liquor store. Infuriated, Walter is about to walk out when Mama tells him that his wife, Ruth, is pregnant and considering an abortion.

When his mother coaxes him to be a man and talk to his wife portrayed with great empathy by Cathy Simpson), Wallace's resentful Walter interprets it as a harangue, but Rice leaves no doubt that Mama's fervor stems from love, not anger. At the end, when her wisdom and love finally get through to Walter, his growth is as much her triumph as his.

But "A Raisin in the Sun" isn't just a domestic drama; it also depicts a wide swath of African-American life in the late 1950s. This diversity is primarily represented by Deidra Lawan Johnson's Beneatha, whose education will take her family from domestic work to the professional class in one generation, and by her two very different beaus.

Cyril Ulric Johnson plays snooty, affluent George Murchison, who epitomizes assimilation, and R. Emery Bright is Joseph Asagai, a smart, affable African exchange student who teaches Beneatha to take pride in her heritage. Like everyone in director Scot Reese's splendid production, they are extremely well cast.

Reese has introduced a couple of new elements to Hansberry's script, with mixed results. He has successfully added a spiritual, "A Ship to Zion," which Mama sings at the beginning and end of the play and which includes the apt line: "Get on board, follow me." However, having Walter recite the Langston Hughes poem from which the play takes its title doesn't make much sense. Hansberry went to such pains to differentiate her characters by social and educational backgrounds, it is unlikely she would have wanted Walter to spout poetry.

But this is a minor quibble with a powerful, moving production. At the final curtain, the family faces new and unknown difficulties they move to a white community. By then, however, your admiration for the tough, determined Youngers is so strong, you'll wish you were part of the family.

'A Raisin in the Sun'

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through Nov. 8

Tickets: $15-$32

Call: 301-924-3400

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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