The cavernous Main Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival looks smaller than ever. I don’t just mean the scenic design for their season-opening production of A Raisin in the Sun, although Clint Ramos appropriately conveys the tenement insalubrity the Younger family longs to escape. The playing area’s deep expanse has been refracted into a single tight square, with rotting walls and rickety shelves so overloaded they seem imminently prone to crumble under the weight. The collective effect is of a universe closing in on itself.
But in a greater sense, this revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s enduring work foregrounds a sense of intimacy and humor rarely encountered in contemporary stagings of modern classics. Since its debut sixty years ago, Hansberry’s story of a Black family from Chicago who use their patriarch’s death benefits to buy a better life in the suburbs has become a byword for socially minded realist drama. It’s a brilliant play in every sense — immaculately structured, with deeply defined characters and a sense of tension that builds right up until its final moments. Yet many interpretations, like the last two Broadway revivals (both directed by Kenny Leon), tend to put it under glass.
Here, director Robert O’Hara lets it breathe. Working with a finely calibrated ensemble who feel more like a true family than any grouping I’ve seen in this play, he burrows into the petty squabbles, annoyances, and minutiae that characterize living with people you love but don’t always like. The keen observational eye given to the smaller moments in the play — the complaints about carfare or too much time spent in the shared bathroom, the scolding over drinking that extra beer — serves to magnify the larger, more perilous fault lines in the drama, making them all the more shattering when crossed.
Along the way to those crushing blows, the comedy flows, and it’s easy to remember that one of Hansberry’s great influences was Sean O’Casey. She modeled the Youngers, to a degree, on the Boyle family in Juno and the Paycock, and O’Hara’s fresh approach drives home an important aspect of both plays: how quickly you can turn from laughing with someone to cursing their name. In the hands of Francois Battiste, Walter Lee Younger loses some of the grandeur of the role’s famous exemplars (Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington), but he closely resembles the preening peacock who’s used to flashing his feathers or cawing until he gets his way. The effect is that of an overgrown child, and we see how that immaturity influences his interactions with the women in his life — and proffers the poor decisions that put his family on the brink of ruin.
Walter Lee often gets the airtime — and most of the air — but I’ve often thought of Raisin as Ruth’s play. On stage from the first moment, quietly pulling order from chaos even as her own wishes go unfulfilled, Walter Lee’s wife comes across as the smartest and most sympathetic of the group. That has never been more evident than in the nuanced, sharply etched performance delivered by Mandi Masden, who suggests the torrents of love, exasperation, and fire beneath the surface of a stoic woman. In Masden’s hands, you also understand that Ruth is not Walter Lee’s savior or surrogate mother, and their relationship makes a kind of cosmic sense that’s sometimes missing. Battiste and Masden create a more equal and affectionate portrait of this marriage as a copacetic partnership.
In this production, Walter Lee and Ruth seem to actually talk to each other, rather than give speeches near each other. O’Hara brilliantly orchestrates dialogue throughout, with characters’ overlapping in a natural manner without losing a word along the way. The result is almost musical sometimes, capturing organic speech rhythms and beats that register as one person picking up another’s thread. The scene in which matriarch Lena (S. Epatha Merkerson) implores her headstrong daughter Beneatha (Nikiya Mathis) that “in my mother’s house, there is still God” — which can often feel static and stagy — crackles with a sense of familial transgression.
Much credit goes to Merkerson, who, like Battiste, brings welcome understatement to her well-known role throughout. (Mathis occasionally pushes the comedic beats too hard, but she settles nicely as the action progresses). Merkerson offers a study in how to say something new with an iconic character, allowing Lena’s powerful influence over everyone in her orbit to seep gradually into the atmosphere. Like Masden’s Ruth, her strength comes in her deliberateness and the courage of her convictions. Because of this, the tragedy of the play seems so fresh — you want to scream that if they’d all just listened to Lena, maybe things would have shaken out differently.
O’Hara has a reputation for making provocative choices, both as a director of his own work (Bootycandy) and that of others (Slave Play). He doesn’t shy away from his authorial vision, even as he’s stewarding a classic, and that comes through in a series of extra-textual choices. Some take too heavy a hand, like ingratiating the spectral figure of Big Walter (Warner Miller, who also plays the small role of Bobo) into several family scenes. The decision to have Karl Lindner (Joe Goldammer), the white neighborhood representative who tries to dissuade the Youngers from moving, constantly swatting at every surface of the apartment with a handkerchief during his visit is similarly obvious. So too is Elisheba Itoop’s musical underscoring.
Another series of stylistic choices unfold in the play’s final scene, with even more force than what comes before. They shouldn’t be spoiled, but I can say with certainty that they won’t work for everyone. I found them properly unsettling, and they reinforced the need for new perspectives on well-trod works. But each audience member will have to decide for themselves whether O’Hara pushes the play too far or just far enough. And decide they should, because this Raisin rises to the level of must-see theater.