The weather vane of Arena Stage’s aggressively entertaining “A Raisin in the Sun” is Lizan Mitchell, the force-of-nature actress playing the 1959 play’s righteous, loving grandmother, Lena Younger. When director Tazewell Thompson wants this show to be funny, the impish Mitchell nails a punchline. When he wants it to be grand, Mitchell rises majestically and gives the performance the force and depth of Greek tragedy.
Quibble with its florid excesses if you like, but there’s no mistaking that this “Raisin” — bizarrely, the first in the company’s nearly 70-year-history — is a crowd-pleaser. “A Raisin in the Sun” is such a major cornerstone of 20th-century American culture that it seems like an obvious and maybe even dull choice, a warhorse for regular theatergoers to avoid while seeking out fresher stimulation. Thompson is determined that it won’t be a dull experience.
Watching it, you might realize that there’s been a lot of August Wilson the past few decades where at least a little Lorraine Hansberry should have been. The similarities are striking: three hours, one set, vivid characters, heightened language, and high-definition thinking about the circumstances of black lives and the facts of race in 20th-century America. (Wilson almost exclusively looked back; the plays excavated history.) Not for nothing is Hansberry, who died in 1965 at age 34, now enjoying a bit of a comeback as major theaters such as Chicago’s Goodman and London’s National investigate her other plays.
Thompson’s association with Arena goes back decades; he’s a known showman. In “Raisin,” that gets channeled into the performances, which burst out of the deliberately tight confines of Donald Eastman’s set (pushed in from the edges of the stage) to fill the four corners of the historic in-the-round Fichandler space. The people are big, from Will Cobbs’s compellingly brooding Walter Lee, Lena’s 35-year-old frustrated son, to Dawn Ursula’s jittery Ruth, Walter’s routine-weary wife, who seems as if she might climb the walls and leap from a window to get out of the cramped, soul-crushing apartment shared by three generations of Youngers. The reckonings are big. So is the comedy — even too big, at times.
Hansberry wasn’t mocking the anguished Walter — sick of being a poorly paid and demeaned chauffeur, and dreaming of starting a business with the $10,000 life insurance check coming after his father’s death — and his 20-year-old sister Beneatha as they danced to African drums. Walter’s disaffection and Beneatha’s spiritual quest are real (and the play’s strongest voice of reason comes from the Nigerian character Asagai, a courtly suitor to Beneatha who is studying to be a doctor). So something is lost by letting an audience laugh away the scene’s subtle discovery as drunk and oddball “otherness.” Play “Raisin” in rep with Hansberry’s “Les Blancs,” her blistering drama about Western colonialism in Africa, and you’d see what the African connection meant to her.
But if this is not always the most surgical “Raisin” imaginable, its earnest heartiness inarguably wraps the audience in a warm embrace. Mitchell is simply remarkable: she has played Lena from Buffalo to Juneau, Alaska, and she was Lena opposite Ursula’s Ruth at Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre in 2011. Her commitment to each moment is as formidable as Lena’s old-school moral core, which is sorely tested in the rapid change of 1950s Chicago. Mitchell convinces you that she could play this drama every night for a hundred years and never lose faith in a syllable.
As Walter, Cobbs has the laser-tight energy of a muscle ready to pop out and hit something, but just held in check. He also has a great voice with a crisp, clear edge; his Walter matures splendidly. Joy Jones is perhaps an unexpected Beneatha: she’s tentative, where this restless, progressive young woman is often played as a confident voyager. Jones delivers the crack in Beneatha’s idealism more than the idealism itself. The fragility is intriguing, but not always convincing.
Still, the audience listens with Beneatha’s eager ears as Asagai (a delightful Bueka Uwemedimo) brings perspective to the family’s calamities over the money. And all this is aside from the inevitably effective late-breaking plot as Karl Lindner (Thomas Adrian Simpson, quietly nailing the diplomatic racist) arrives with his please-don’t-move-into-our-white-neighborhood message to the Youngers. The ending is unforced, thoughtful and perfect, enough to ratify “Raisin’s” belated appearance on a stage that should have been its natural home long ago.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Directed by Tazewell Thompson. Costumes, Harry Nadal; lights, Robert Wierzel; original sound and composition, Fabian Obispo. With Jeremiah Hasty, Keith L. Royal Smith, Mack Leamon, Kamau Mitchell and Frank Riley III. Through May 7 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets $40-$111, subject to change. Call 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org.