They don't make mommas like her any more. They hardly make plays like this either. And one thing that's certain, nobody in the Springs has produced anything of this quality in quite some time.
A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of Lena Younger's family, an unremarkable Chicago family facing remarkable moments at a crossroads crisis. The action revolves around a $10,000 check from a life insurance policy on Lena's late husband. But closer to the bone, the story deals with generations of dreams stored away for another time. Five generations of the Younger family have persevered through their country's legacy of inhumanity and inequality to arrive at the moment of the play, and time is running out.
Designer Nancy Hankin spares no detail. She immerses us in the family tenement house, from the shared bathroom in the hall outside the apartment stage right, to Ruth and Walter's bedroom stage left -- stopping on the way at the working gas stove filling the theater with morning smells of slow-sizzling bacon and scrambling eggs. Whatever action takes place in the bedroom is minor on the surface, but the silences of one or two characters waiting, hiding, dreaming, and dreading out of the lights of center stage is the kind of total depth that makes the play so forceful, so immediate, and so very real. So convincing is the illusion that we can almost feel the warmth of the beam of sunlight angling its way through the canyons of tenements to get to Mama Lena's struggling plant in the kitchen window.
Director Katie Damp's superb cast succeeds by demanding responsiveness from each other, even when there are no lines to communicate with. The air is constantly filled with palpable tensions simmering toward explosion. There is so much unuttered interaction between these characters, the audience finds themselves watching the subtextual service and return as though watching a tennis match. Expectation whips your head stage left, stage right, stage left, stage right, and there's never a disappointing moment in looking at an out-of-the-way character who has every right to drift into the shadows but refuses to do so.
A. Lynne Bell plays Lena, the kind of powerhouse, affirming role that actresses live for. Bell fuels her character with a ceaseless commitment to the nearly obsolete idea of family. Her Lena is unwavering in her insistence that there is still God in her house, that she must trust her son in order to empower him, and that her family needs her love the most when they are at their worst.
Don Clark Williams brings Walter to life to test his mother's unconditionality, to outrage his sister and to challenge his audience. Williams constantly forces us to question our instinct to smile at his antics. We rein in our emotions when he tempts us with his own sugar-coated rite-of-passage, daring us to believe in a happily-ever-after. When Maris Dannielle Hbert's deftly-rendered Beneatha yells out, pleading, "Where is the honest-to-God bottom so he can't go no further?", the audience is ripped apart by the family's unraveling. The characters are frighteningly and irresistibly real -- unpredictable, driven by a myriad of motivations competing for attention -- and we alternatively recoil and rejoice at the inability to anticipate their dark valleys and their glorious summits.