A Raisin in the Sun
Palm Beach Dramaworks,
201 Clematis St.,
West Palm Beach, Fla. ($55),
561-514-4042, closes March 3
West Palm Beach, Fla.
What makes a play political? Sometimes it's all in the timing. "A Raisin in the Sun," Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama about a black family that wants to move to a white neighborhood, doubtless came across as strongly political when it first opened on Broadway. How could it have been otherwise? Fifty-four years later, though, "Raisin" seems not so much a here-and-now assault on racism as a history play about black culture in the Eisenhower era, and what hits you hardest is the unflinching truthfulness with which Ms. Hansberry has enacted the hurtful and universal complexities of family life.
Though it's been nine years since "Raisin" was last seen on Broadway, it was already receiving its fair share of regional productions prior to the 2010 premiere of "Clybourne Park," in which Bruce Norris imagined what might have happened to the house that the Younger family bought in the early 1950s. The success of Mr. Norris's toothless little satire, however, has inspired still more companies to revive the original play on which it is based, which is what brought me down to West Palm Beach to see "Raisin." I already knew that it was effective, but Palm Beach Dramaworks' production, simply staged by Seret Scott and acted to perfection by a phenomenally well-chosen cast, suggests that it is in fact one of the finest American plays of the 20th century, one that deserves to be ranked alongside the very best work of William Inge and Tennessee Williams.
Not that there's anything out of the ordinary about "Raisin" beyond its excellence. It's a kitchen-sink domestic drama about a family that is fresh out of hope. The fact that the Youngers are black now seems less like an innovation than a detail, though it's marvelous to see how precisely Ms. Hansberry caught the tone of black life in the 1950s. What makes the play so good is its absolute sureness of craft, coupled with Ms. Hansberry's acute ear for the way that the members of close-knit families talk to one another. (August Wilson must have read "Raisin" more than once when he was learning the playwright's trade.)
Such plays demand actors of the first rank, and Ms. Scott has got them. Pat Bowie, who appeared in the New York productions of Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate" and "Orphans' Home Cycle," is an artist of immense solidity and assurance who plays Lena, the matriarch of the Younger family, so believably that you'll come away wondering if you might have bumped into her on the street the other day. As for Ethan Henry, whom I saw and admired in GableStage's 2012 production of "The Motherf**ker With the Hat," he rivals Sidney Poitier, who created the role of Walter Lee Younger on Broadway, then played him in the 1961 film version. You won't soon forget the anguish with which he assures his mother that life is "all divided up…between the takers and the 'tooken'" and that he is willing to shame himself in order to become one of the former.
The rest of the cast is worthy of the exalted standard set by Ms. Bowie and Mr. Henry, and Paul Tate dePoo III, the set designer, has conjured up an apartment so shabby that you can all but hear the cockroaches scurrying through the living room. If you'd been at last Saturday's matinee, you would also have heard weeping throughout the auditorium during the final scene of this glorious revival. Never have tears been so honestly earned.
Orlando Shakespeare Theater,
812 E. Rollins St., Orlando, Fla.
Closes March 16
Traditional stagings of Shakespeare's plays are hard to come by these days, and it's refreshing to be reminded, as Orlando Shakespeare is currently doing in its outstanding version of "Othello," that the greatest of all English-speaking playwrights can scrape along quite nicely without hip costumes or self-consciously clever directorial touches. Brian Vaughn's production takes place in 16th-century Venice and Cyprus, not Greenwich Village or Nazi Germany, and unfolds on a flexible Elizabethan-style unit set designed by Bert Scott that hurls you from scene to scene with electric swiftness. Nothing is allowed to divert your attention from Shakespeare's harsh portrayal of jealousy run rampant, and the cast tells the tale briskly and forcefully.
Mr. Vaughn's staging is Iago-centric, and Martin Yurek is more than equal to the challenge of bringing Shakespeare's vengeful monster to horrific life. His demeanor is modern but not anachronistically so, and he steers clear of mustache-twirling melodrama, coolly confiding his malign purpose to the audience. Esau Pritchett brings a hugely commanding physical presence to the title role, and Lindsey Kyler (who is much shorter than Mr. Pritchett, a telling touch) is delicate but not insipid as Desdemona. Britt Sandusky, the sound designer, has supplied a score that is strongly cinematic in its effect, while Eric T. Haugen has lighted the stage in such a way as to emphasize its darkness and depth. If you've never seen "Othello," this would be the ideal way to make its acquaintance.—Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, blogs about theater and the other arts at www.terryteachout.com. Write to him at email@example.com.