by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Kenny Leon
Starring Denzel Washington
Barrymore Theatre
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

I think it may be possible that the current revival of A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry may well be the best rendering the play has ever seen in New York since the original production. And it's not hard to check one's memory on that, because with the exception of director Kenny Leon's new (yet very straightforwardly delivered) staging—and perhaps only an exception for the moment—every New York production has had its essential values and performances of its casts preserved on film and video. (That may be a unique statistic.)

                  What makes this one stand as tall as the original is the energy at the center, provided by Denzel Washington as Walter Lee Younger, the iconic black American male of the late 50s with ambitionsand dreams for which he has no outlet. And what makes that energy special is that, like the role's originator, Siney Poitier, he's unafraid of big theatrical gesture. If a speech is operatic in scope, he'll reach for the size of it; when, in the text, the dreams of a simple man are given a heightened expression of poetry, Washington locates the sweet spot between naturalism and Shakespearean grandeur. And that ups the story stakes and the emotional octane of everyone around him. (When Mr. Leon directed the show in its last revival, this was not the case: rapper Sean Combs seemed a little too contemporary and a little too ordinary, haplessness was a part of his matrix; whereas if the persona of Walter Lee is as big as his dreams, they achieve the distinction of possibility.)

                  This is especially important in the case of LaTanya Richardson Jackson  as Lena, the matriarch. Ms. Jackson came in for the originally announced Diahann Carroll (who realized on the job that she’d reached a point in life where she simply didn’t have eight-performance-a-week stamina anymore) and unlike all the previous Mama Youngers I’ve seen, she doesn’t have a towering personality; rather, she’s a very good, very solid character actress. But having Washington to play against brings out the bigness she has, and we begin very quickly to warm to the everydayness of her, to the idea of an older working woman holding a family together the best way she can. (It’s curious that A Raisin in the Sun can survive handily without a superstar Lena, but I begin to think there’s something in the dynamic of the play; Walter Lee’s wanting her approval so desperately imbues her with power. The reverse flow doesn’t work so well.)

                  Making her Broadway debut, Sophie Okenedo fares excellently in the role of Walter Lee’s beleaguered wife, Ruth, an indelible portrait of exhauasted, haunted determination. And the rest of the cast are likewise quite engaging.

                  There’s a lot more to say about the play, its structure, its symbolism, but I’ve already said it here, ten years ago; so click on that link if you’re curious. All that’s important to add right now is that it remains as great a human drama as ever, it gets the audience as strirred and invested as ever—and it couldn’t be in more capable or appropriate hands.

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