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Home Truths

Feb 07 2013
Terry Teachout | Wall Street Journal

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. ...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...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.