In her review of Lorraine Hansberry's play in 1959—written before the piece had reached Broadway, and with little evidence it would become recognized as one of the great American works of the 20th century—Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy wrote of A Raisin in the Sun's tryout at Chicago's Blackstone Theatre that it was "a remarkable play, acted to the Blackstone hilt of its warm heart, its proud backbone, and its quicksilver funnybone by Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, and Ruby Dee."
Like Cassidy's review 15 years earlier of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, her enthusiastic notice for Raisin is often credited with clearing the path for the play's future success. TimeLine Theatre Company's impressively vital new revival seems to hit every note that Cassidy heard, while coming with some remarkable resonances of its own.
Hansberry's play, about a black family on Chicago's South Side in the early 1950s presented—one might also say saddled—with the possibility of buying a house in a white neighborhood, will perhaps always echo most plangently in the city in which it's set.
Here, it also has the accomplished Chicago director Ron OJ Parson, possibly best known in this city for helming many of the plays of August Wilson, whose "Century Cycle" allowed him to more broadly chronicle the 20th-century African-American experience than Hansberry ever did (she died of cancer in 1965, at the age of 34).
Parson also has a long history with A Raisin in the Sun—beginning, as he amusingly mentions in a program note, with a school production in which Parson the 7th-grader was conscripted to play the white character Karl Lindner because he was lighter-skinned than his classmates.
He coyly omits that he also portrayed one of the moving men who show up at the play's conclusion in the acclaimed 25th anniversary production that starred Delroy Lindo and Esther Rolle, or that he's since played the lead male role, ambitious and angry young man Walter Lee Younger, in three productions and directed three others, most recently last spring at Milwaukee Rep.
That production shared two cast members with TimeLine's: Mildred Marie Langford as Walter Lee's sister, the protofeminist Beneatha Younger, and Greta Oglesby as family matriarch Lena Younger. Oglesby, who served as a standby for Phylicia Rashad in the same role in the 2004 Broadway revival, has clearly lived with Lena long enough to turn the character into a primal force of nature; her nuclear core is strong, but capable of catastrophic meltdown. It's an absolutely gut-wrenching act to witness.
Parson's entire cast is ideally fit. Jerod Haynes's Walter thrums with ache and need for the world to take him and his ideas seriously; it's a powerful, intensely felt performance. Both Langford's Beneatha and Toni Martin, as Walter's practical wife Ruth, run a gauntlet of often-opposing sensations, but watch their faces as they register the true reason Mr. Lindner (Chris Rickett, oily but on-point) has paid a visit to their home. The space between their tandem reactions looks like fertile soil for a revolution.
And that touches on another reason Parson's latest staging, impeccably designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge (set and lights) and Janice Pytel (costumes) for a thrust staging that maximizes both audience intimacy and tenement claustrophobia, hits so hard.
Cannily, maybe coincidentally, TimeLine's production opened Wednesday night on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, enriching it with all the sentiment and ceremony afforded by that tick on the timeline, along with the attendant discussions of how much progress has, and hasn't, been made in the half-century since. All of which point up the still remarkable prescience and wisdom of Hansberry's play, alongside the warm, proud and funny attributes that remain undiminished.