DALLAS It’s sometimes said that there should be a good reason to revive a classic work of theater; but for the truly great classics, it’s always the right time. There should never be a question of “why” when a theater decides it’s time to stage Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, for instance. Likewise, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
Both plays, which premiered a decade apart (1949 and 1959, respectively), rightly belong in the pantheon of Great American Plays. While Raisin is considered important because of the barriers it broke — a black female playwright on Broadway addressing race relations just before the civil rights movement in the ’60s — the play is a masterpiece because, like Salesman, it speaks of the American Dream in ways more profound than many other works that tackle this oft-discussed idea.
That element earns a special highlight in the production that opens Dallas Theater Center’s new season, now playing at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre and directed by Tre Garrett, artistic director of Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre.
Considering this play is still taught in high school (I hope), it won’t be spoiling anything to say that the ending is a touch different from the one you may be expecting. The Younger family, after receiving some insurance money following the death of matriarch Lena’s (Liz Mikel) husband, moves out of its run-down rented home in Chicago, headed for a newly purchased house in a nicer neighborhood. The final bit of action has Lena heading out the door, and then rushing back in to grab the little potted plant she has nurtured. Then out the door she goes. End of play.
The feeling is hopeful because we know — we hope — that the Youngers are making a positive change for their family, and breaking some ground in race relations with their new neighbors.
But this production has something to add after Lena grabs her plant. Without spoiling it, it’s a cathartic visual that happens because this production of Raisin will run in rotating repertory with Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, which won the 2011 Pultizer Prize for drama and the 2012 Tony Award for best play.
Named for the neighborhood that the Youngers move into, the play first gives us another side of the story in 1959, and then, in the second act, jumps 50 years later to 2009. ( Clybourne, directed by Joel Ferrell, begins previews Oct. 4 and opens Oct. 11; both productions close Oct. 27.)
It’s a genius idea, to pair two plays that are in conversation with one another. As to how it works, we’ll have to wait until the newer play opens.
But if it’s anything like Garrett’s production of Raisin, we’re in for a treat.
Aside from that ending, there’s nothing amended for this staging, but it never feels like a musty museum piece. As always, it starts with the casting.
Mikel, who is tall and authoritative and at least a decade too young to play Mama, acquits herself beautifully. She captures the nurturing wisdom of the role, but she’s also physically intimidating. When she slaps her daughter Beneatha (a terrific Tiffany Hobbs) for suggesting that there is no God, it’s scary.
That also makes Walter Lee’s (Bowman Wright) defiance of her wishes bolder, and his breakdown more devastating. He is urged throughout the play to be a man by his mother and his wife, Ruth (Ptosha Storey, in a masterful, honest performance), and to do what’s best for his young son Travis (Christopher Adkins in the performance seen for this review; he alternates in the role with Justise Maon).
Pay special attention to the brief appearance by Steven Michael Walters as Karl Linder, the only white role, and the only part in Hansberry’s play that crosses over into Norris’. As Joseph Asagi, the Nigerian whom Beneatha adores because he represents her Africanist ideals, Jakeem Powell is also memorable.
Bob Lavallee’s scenic design, Karen Perry’s costumes and Valerie Gladstone’s wigs and hairstyles capture the era and characters perfectly. Look for their work also in the counterpart play.
Garrett has done some fine work in his three years at Jubilee Theatre. This production proves that he can handle bigger spaces and budgets deftly, and also can take great care with a classic of such dramatic heft.