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'A Raisin in the Sun' 

Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Jan. 20

click to enlarge RECEIVING THE CHECK: Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, Lynnette R. Freeman and Tyrese Treyvon Bluford (clockwise from left) star in The Rep's prodcution of 'A Raisin in the Sun.'
  • RECEIVING THE CHECK: Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, Lynnette R. Freeman and Tyrese Treyvon Bluford (clockwise from left) star in The Rep's prodcution of 'A Raisin in the Sun.'

The moment comes somewhere around the middle of the first act — not that anybody who is paying attention will miss it. This is in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's spirited production of "A Raisin in the Sun" and, like most galvanizing moments in the theater, it's practically wordless. Three members of the hard-working Younger clan gaze in awe and wonder — and then for mama Lena something like trepidation — as a check for $10,000 is pulled out of its envelope. This insurance check, a crucial device by playwright Lorraine Hansberry, alternately illuminates the dreams and sets in motion the destruction of those dreams held by those living in the cramped, cockroach-infested apartment in the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s.

It's not a given that landmark plays such as "A Raisin in the Sun" will endure. But this play, which, at its debut in 1959 was the first by a black female playwright to land on Broadway, has lasted for more than 50 years. Perhaps the recent economic woes make the Youngers' struggles more keenly felt by more people. But the issues of family, pride, happiness and dreams are eternal and "Raisin" brings those issues to life.

Directed by Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, the Rep's "Raisin" isn't a rethinking or re-imagining — the production does a good job of getting out of the way and letting the play work. This is straight-up, stay-behind-the-fourth wall realism — the kind theater patrons rarely see anymore. This is an emotional play that puts its sharply delineated characters through the wringer — as Beneatha Younger (played by Myxolydia Tyler) wails at one point, "Is there no bottom?" For the most part, the Rep's cast is up to the challenge.

Phyllis Yvonne Stickney strays too close to caricature in her portrayal of the matriarch Lena Younger. Stickney, who is younger than the woman she plays, has a stilted walk and way of speaking that pushes you back from instead of pulling you toward Lena, a tough but wise woman trying to hold her contentious brood together. To Stickney's credit, she is consistent throughout the show and she hits all the emotional notes.  

Walter Lee Younger is the frustrated chauffeur with the desperate dream to take the $10,000 and open a liquor store. Hisham Tawfiq makes clear the character's restlessness, as he paces around Mike Nichols' recreation of an apartment that's cut off from the sunlight. Tawfiq at times needs to let his anger simmer more but he is a compelling presence. As Ruth Younger, Lynnette R. Freeman delivers an indelible performance, a restrained yet controlled take on a woman who struggles to say what she wants.

 "A Raisin in the Sun" is certainly tied to its time period and the talk of African heritage and assimilation and the first movements of civil rights. But the play has aged well because it offers moments like the one with the check. It's pure theater and no other dramatic form can duplicate it. That is reason enough alone to make time for this production. 

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