Upper row from L to R: Faushia R. Weeden, David Terrell Green, and Olivia Howard. Lower row from L to R: Karen S. Fox and Brodhi McClymont
A poor family in Chicago’s South Side gains a windfall of $10,000. Amidst thoughts of dreams granted and a happier life, the money serves to deepen cracks in an already fractured unit and prove that the love of money is the root of all evil. But the love of family still has the power to conquer all. This is A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and it is playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Hansberry’s script has its ups and downs. It introduces powerful themes of family, racism, poverty, generational changes, personal identity, perseverance, hope, and self-respect, but also has some structural weaknesses. The first act introduces several storylines for the show, but moves terribly slowly and doesn’t provide adequate build for the stories. By the second act, the primary story of the money gains center stage, a potentially interesting subplot about a surprise, possibly unwanted, pregnancy is all, but forgotten, and a story about a young woman seeking her own identity gets a bit of short shrift. On the other hand, the second act does provide some incredibly strong monologues and conversational moments that are a treasure trove for performers.
Tyrone Beasley’s direction is quite effective. This show is driven solely by dialogue which can become quite dry, if not handled just right. Beasley handles it well by having his actors make natural movements that animate the, often lengthy, conversations. He understands the emotional beats and his actors always hit those moments subtly and organically. He’s coached his actors to performances ranging from solid to deeply adept and I tip my hat to his superior guidance of the debuting Karen S. Fox. That being said, I also thought the show could have benefited from a brisker pace.
Good supporting performances are given by Faushia R. Weeden who projects a spiritual weariness as Ruth Younger as she goes through the motions of life with a crumbling marriage and a hopeless future until the promise of a new home in a better neighborhood relights her candle. Brodhi McClymont has a real naturalness for this work and provides some lighthearted moments as Travis Younger. Christopher Scott provides a suitably subtle, polite, and slimy performance as a racist trying to engineer a buyout of the Younger’s new home in Clybourne Park so “those people” won’t move in.
David Terrell Green gives a gripping performance in his Playhouse debut as Walter Lee Younger. At his core, Walter Lee is a good man. He wants nothing more than to provide the best, possible life for his family, but has been so beaten down by life that he copes with his perceived failures with alcohol and sometimes takes reckless gambles in an attempt to provide that better life. Green is dead on target with Walter Lee’s brokenness, but still shows that inner decency and drive to do better for his family. He really sizzles in the second act when he makes an awful mistake in attempting to grab the brass ring and shows the depths of his love for his family with a performance demonstrating the utter humiliation he’s willing to undergo to rectify that error.
Karen S. Fox really dove into the deep end as she makes her acting debut with the heavy role of the Younger matriarch, Lena. For someone who’s never performed before, Fox did an exceptional job. She portrayed a good, Southern woman with strong faith in God and desperately fighting to hold her family together as it falls apart. She hits the emotional beats well, reaching just the right level of anger when the bulk of her money is misused and being a bulwark for her son as she understands the impact of the blows life has dealt him. Fox does need to make some minor fixes in volume, projection, and not upstaging herself.
Steven Williams has designed a dilapidated apartment whose spaces between the boards help to communicate the poverty in which the Youngers live. Tim Vallier has composed a haunting score for the show which is sure to stir your heart. Lindsay Pape’s costumes well display the social status of the various characters from the cheaper quality clothes of the Youngers to the more elegant wear of the wealthier Karl Lindner and the more educated Joseph Asagai and George Murchison.
This preview night performance did have some difficulties. Pacing was quite slow. Pickups for internal and regular cues needed to be much, much quicker. Energy was sorely lacking for stretches, but when it was there, the dialogue sparkled and popped. There was also an x factor missing from the performance. Actors know that feeling. It’s that magical something that causes the show to take on the fullness of its own life and it is an intangible. It’s either there or it isn’t. When it’s not there, the show feels like a rehearsal. When it’s there, that’s when the show reaches maximum potential.
At the end, this is a story about family. Its highs and lows. Its joys and trials. Its hopes and dreams. A night with the Youngers just may give you a new perspective on life.
A Raisin in the Sun plays at the Omaha Playhouse through Feb 9. Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $24 ($16 for students) and vary by performance. Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com, calling 402-553-0800, or visiting the box office. Due to some adult language, parental discretion is advised. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.
Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography