Family comes first in `Raisin'

Review: The Center Stage production shows exactly what makes the Youngers so close-knit.

November 23, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Center Stage's forceful production of A Raisin in the Sun makes it easy to see where the character of Walter Lee Younger -- a chauffeur who yearns to become a businessman -- gets his determination and stubbornness.

Actor Keith Glover leaves no doubt that proud, headstrong Walter is his mother's son. And emphasizing that shared trait is crucial to the success of director Marion McClinton's interpretation.

One of the late playwright Lorraine Hansberry's frustrations with Raisin was that it lacks a clear-cut protagonist, but divides its focus between Walter and his mother, Lena.

But with the same psychological insight he has demonstrated in staging August Wilson's plays, McClinton transforms what Hansberry saw as "an enormous dramatic fault" into a strength. The family in Raisin is on the brink of self-destruction, and McClinton recognizes that one cause is the power struggle between Walter and Lena.

Trezana Beverley plays Lena as a tough, vigorous matriarch. If her character has a flaw, it's that she loves too hard; left to her own devices, she'd spoil her grandson silly. That's her sweet side. Let something get in the way of her dreams for her family, however, and her fury is a force of nature. Something does get in her way -- her son, Walter. Like Lena, Walter wants to get things done. He just goes about it the wrong way.

Hansberry's classic 1959 drama begins the day before Lena receives $10,000 from her late husband's life insurance policy. Walter wants to invest the money in a liquor store, but Lena has other ideas.

Sensing that her family is splintering, Lena puts a third of the money down on a house she hopes will not only bring them back together, but also get them out of the squalid tenement where three generations are crowded into a small apartment.

But while Lena may be stubborn, she knows when she's made a mistake, and when she sees what withholding the money from Walter has done to him, she hands him the rest. The way McClinton stages this scene is central to the dynamic he establishes between mother and son. Lena tells Walter she wants him to be head of the family, but the way she says it leaves no question that she regards him as a child.

Yet when Walter makes a terrible error in judgment regarding the money, Beverley's Lena doesn't strike him, as the character has been known to do in other productions. Instead, this woman, who doesn't allow yelling in her house, lets loose with enough anguished shrieks to raise her dead husband. However audiences may feel about this outburst, one thing is certain: it's a lot closer to the impassioned performance that first made Beverley a star than it is to any cliched notion of Mama. (Beverley won a Tony Award in 1977 for her portrayal of The Lady in Red in for colored girls.)

Lena's outburst is balanced by the final scene, in which Walter comes into his manhood, as his mother puts it. Walter's lines could build to soapbox level in this scene, but Glover delivers them with restraint. He finally has grown up.

Of course, Raisin isn't merely about Lena and Walter, it's about the whole family, and Center Stage's ensemble is remarkably close-knit this early in the run. As Ruth, Walter's weary but beautiful wife, Linda Powell is the family peacemaker, and she's more of a friend and confidant than a daughter-in-law to Beverley's relatively youthful Mama. As Walter's serious-minded college-student sister, Tracie Thoms' Beneatha may be the best-educated Younger, but she's every bit as willful as her brother and mother.

A Raisin in the Sun was the first serious black drama on Broadway, but the world it depicts stretches well beyond its South Side Chicago setting. Hansberry demonstrated the diversity of black life by giving Beneatha two diametrically opposed suitors. They are well delineated by Harvey Gardner Moore as a shallow, socially prominent assimilationist and Curtis McClarin as a forward-thinking Nigerian exchange student.

Designer Michael Philippi's set includes a scrim that allows us occasionally to see into Ruth and Walter's bedroom. It's a feature that emphasizes the lack of privacy in this apartment where family members constantly barge in on each other and neighbors bang on the ceilings and floors.

That's not all that makes this neighborhood unlivable. McClinton includes a brief scene first seen in the 1989 American Playhouse telecast: Walter and Ruth's son Travis comes in talking excitedly about chasing a rat with his friends. Sylvester Lee Kirk (who alternates in the role with Robert M. Harley) does a fine job with this material, but we don't need it to understand the environment the Youngers are desperate to escape.

Not that Hansberry painted a Pollyanna-ish picture of what the Youngers will face next. Far from it. Their new house is in an all-white neighborhood whose "welcoming committee" already has informed them they're unwelcome. But whatever trials lie ahead, Center Stage's production leaves no doubt that this family will face them as a united front, and that's a beautiful thing to see.

Raisin in the Sun

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays. Through Dec. 23

Tickets: $10-$53

Call: 410-332-0033

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