A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Malcolm Ewen
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"A giant surrounded by ants."
"A man say he has a dream. His wife say eat your eggs."
That pretty much sums up the life being lived by Walter Lee Younger and his wife Ruth as they camp out in a spare bedroom in a tenement apartment in South Chicago which is Walterís motherís home. Walterís sister Beneatha shares a room with her mother and Walter and Ruthís ten year old son sleeps on the living room sofa. Ruth is pregnant and is considering an abortion. Travis races for the bathroom in the hallway, shared by other dwellers in the building. Beneatha dreams of becoming a doctor or marrying a glamorous figure, a man she knows from Africa. Ruth wants a home of her own, or at least a bedroom with a door. Walter Lee wants a liquor store, or a bar, or anything he can call his own that will make him rich. Mama Lena wants her children to be happy and successful. Itís the American dreams of a black family in the Midwest in the early 1950's.
It is this world that director Malcolm Ewen has deftly brought to the stage at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, Vermont as the companyís final main stage show of the season. In this Black America of Hansberryís creation no one gets what they want and everyone gets what they can. Their journey of a few weeks, as a $10,000 insurance check paid on the death of Lenaís husband takes them all through a series of changes, ultimately brings them to a satisfactory ending and a new beginning as well. Except for the poverty and struggle, the move this family makes mirrors one that Hansberryís own family took and we can anticipate, in their new beginnings, the same disastrous and difficult results for the Younger family. Even a happy ending has its problems, it seems.
The cast in Vermont is comprised of excellent actors, one and all. That they leave a slightly flat sensation may be due to the hidden difficulties of this script or it may just be that there wasnít enough time in this summer-theatre season to truly investigate the subtext of the piece. Hansberryís tale is so multi-layered and dimensional that it needs time for the deepest psychological aspects of the roles to emerge, to develop. Even so we can see the problems facing these folks. The written lines give us that much. What isnít written, but is implied so frequently, is the confusion of emotions that lie well under the surface. These actors have the surface down pat and some of the darker colors, shadowed by those lines, are coming through but we still miss many things.
The deep love and regard that Ruth feels for her man isnít really happening in this production. Lenaís belief in her sonís spirit and her trust in him with money is clearly presented, but her dependence upon his possessing his fatherís character and dependability hasnít been brought out. It is small things like these that change the way a character is played by an actor and the way it is perceived by an audience.
That said, we deal with what weíre given.
Chantal Jean-Pierre is playing Ruth as a devoted, downhearted and dispirited woman, a wife who sacrifices and resents it. She plays this woman extremely well and with a complete believability. In her few joyous moments she is all beauty and in every other moment of the play she is just about the unhappiest person imaginable. That split in her personality is fascinating to watch. Itís unlike any other Ruth Iíve ever seen and certainly viable.
Wendell Franklin as her husband Walter Lee is softer and sweeter in many ways than most of the men Iíve seen play this part before. His anger and his hostility toward his family comes sugar-coated most of the time and that leaves us wondering why we donít like Walter Lee. The lines he delivers answer the question but he says them so nicely that itís hard to get a handle on who the man really is or might be in the future.
Erica Peeples as his sister Beneatha is also a bit on the saccharine side. Her sweetness burns, as it should, but it still seems sweet. There is little fire, little hostility in her attitude toward her brother. Instead there is a kind of petulance. Itís not the best choice, for without that 1950s devilish annoyance that was so prevalent in many young women of the time she is just another 20-something with a set of niggling habits.
She has two suitors who are played wonderfully by Stephen Tyrone Williams (as her American boyfriend George Murchison) and Hubert Point-Du-Jour as Asagai (her Nigerian lover). Williams does the over-anxious, uptight, upwardly mobile young man to a tee. You can almost see the stick up his back in the rigidity of his attitudinal playing. Point-Du-Jour, on the other hand, has a smooth manner and delicious voice and he is a wonderful manipulator of space and light as he moves into Beneathaís life.
John Leonard Thompson is appropriately sleazy as the white man who comes to buy the Youngerís out of their new home even before they can move into it. Raphael Peacock is a determined hysteric as Bobo, just as he should be. Coy Stewart does just fine as the young son of the Youngers.
As always the role that takes us deepest into the hearts and souls of this family is Lena, played here by Tonye Patano. She is a wonderful actress even if I am not convinced she is playing Lena Younger. There is much more she could bring to the part, but what she delivers is emotionally powerful and sweetly likeable. Her one scene where she allows Lena to break her usual cool attitude and turn on her son who has betrayed her trust, is well played, although it hasnít been given a true conclusion. Somehow the audience is robbed of the catharsis, but where it goes wrong is hard to say: acting? direction? light cue? It is so good and so almost there.
On the small stage in Weston a world has been created by set designer Russell Metheny and practically perfect clothing has been provided by costume designer Barbara A. Bell.
A good production may be said to have been had by all, but one without all of the heart and soul imbedded in this play by its author. It is hard to dig that deep in circumstances such as these and, honestly, to sit back and hear the dialogue spoken so well by these actors is almost enough at this point. We donít have that many opportunities to indulge in such a wealth of concepts, thoughts and relationships and itís good to be reminded of where we were sixty years ago. We need that look just to see where weíve come to in all this time.
Chantal Jean-Pierre as Ruth; photo provided
Erica Peeples and Wendell Franklin; photo provided
Tanye Patano as Lena; photo provided
A Raisin in the Sun plays at the Weston Playhouse, located on the Green in Weston, Vermont, through September 6 and then tours. For information or tickets call the box office at 802-824-5288.