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Huntington Theatre Company’s – Hansbury’s Classic

“A Raisin in the Sun,” at the BU Theatre in Boston through April 7.

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia

“Bitter?” says Walter Lee Younger in the powerful Huntington t Company production of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 masterpiece, “A Raisin in the Sun,” at the BU Theatre in Boston through April 7. “Man, I’m a volcano.”

As he sizes up George, the well-heeled collegian calling on his sister, Beneatha, Walter seethes with frustration. Like his spirited sister, who wants to be a doctor, Walter too is bursting with dreams. He works as a chauffeur, but longs to be the executive riding in the back seat. Yet he feels powerless to change his life.

He numbs his pain with beer, considers a dicey scheme to buy a liquor store and lives in his mother’s cramped apartment with his wife, Ruth, and son Travis, who sleeps on the living room sofa. His mother, Lena, shares her bed with Beneatha.

The promise of a better life comes with the life insurance settlement of the deceased family patriarch, Big Walter. Lena wants the money to fund Beneatha’s education and buy a home for her family. But when she chooses one in an all-white neighborhood — where houses are nicer and cost less — a community spokesman informs the Youngers that a black family is not welcome and offers to buy them out.

Walter sees the offer is degrading but he needs the money. How he resolves this dilemma is the turning point of the play.

Hansberry took the play’s title from the 1951 Langston Hughes poem “Harlem,” which begins, “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?”

Hansberry sets the play in Chicago’s South Side, where her family’s house is now a Chicago historic landmark. Her father, Carl Augustus Hansberry, a real estate broker, bought the house in 1938. Then, the neighborhood was white and its residents drew up a restrictive covenant barring African Americans. He fought it all the way to the US Supreme Court, which in 1940 voided the covenant.

Remembering this “hellishly hostile” neighborhood, two decades later Hansberry created a landmark work of American dramatic literature. At age 29, she became the youngest playwright to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play and the first African American playwright to be produced on Broadway.

Opening to standing ovations on March 11, 1959, “Raisin in the Sun” was the first Broadway production directed by an African American (Lloyd Richards). Its stars, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett performed in a movie version three years later.

Few modern playwrights have achieved the impact of Hansberry, who died just six years later, succumbing to pancreatic cancer at age 34. Since its debut, her play has been in continuous production throughout the world. Kenny Leon directed a 2004 Broadway revival and a 2008 TV movie starring Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald. The women won Tony awards for their portrayals of Lena and Ruth.

Directed by Liesl Tommy, the Huntington Theatre staging brings out the full grandeur of Hansberry’s play, which in the poetry of everyday language tells the story not only of Walter but also of his family and their struggle to achieve a good life.

Unfolding in three acts, this production moves with the layered emotional music of the family, from its turbulent storms to light-hearted scenes of a dancing Beneatha joyfully embracing an African boyfriend’s cultural traditions.

At the center of the play and the family is Lena, the voice of love and truth, portrayed with majesty by Kimberly Scott.

Scott’s companion in inner heft, Ashley Everage endows Walter’s wife Ruth with a weary loveliness as well as sardonic humor and a wide scale of emotions, from dread that Walter does not want the baby she is carrying to elation about the family’s new home.

Telling her family why she bought the house, Lena says, “We was going backwards ‘stead of forwards … When it gets like that in life — you just got to do something different, push on out and do something bigger.”

Lena slaps Beneatha for denying God, chastises Walter for not reassuring his wife and seeing his brokenness, turns her money over to him.

Acting the part of a man in meltdown, Leroy McClain at times overplays Walter’s intensity in his scenes of angry confrontation. Yet in quieter moments, McClain is riveting, even magnificent, as he reveals Walter’s tenderness, joy and vulnerability.

Although Beneatha sparks much of the play’s humor, she is also a force in her family. At first, Keona Welch is a trifle too adorable in the role of Beneatha, and nearly turns her character into a lightweight. But as she interacts with Scott’s Lena and Everage’s Ruth, her Beneatha gels into a strong character, balancing winsome style with earthy substance.

The set by Clint Ramos rotates on a platform to show the Youngers in their kitchen and living room, stairwell and small bedroom. In this worn, crammed apartment, Ruth and Lena bring order by folding clothes, ironing, preparing meals, cleaning and occasionally, stomping cockroaches.

Costumes by Kathleen Geldard suit the characters. Dressed for school in his sweater vest, Travis (a part shared by Cory Janvier and Zaire White) looks like a beloved child. Beneatha’s shapely dresses give her the look of a ‘50s ingénue.

Lighting by Lap Chi Chu lends a surreal quality to some scenes, including an intimate episode between Walter and his son. In a stirring performance by McClain, Walter conjures for Travis their family’s proud ancestral past. As he speaks, the two step into a shaft of light, leaving their cramped apartment behind.

Invisible to the family is the ghost of Big Walter. Dressed in grey, he sits stone-still in the kitchen, turning slightly only to watch his son and grandson when they enter the room. Performed with wordless eloquence by Corey Allen, who also plays George, the ghost is an invention of the director. Without interfering with the play, his presence underscores the lineage of pride and self-respect that Lena strives to nurture in her family.

When Walter tells Lena that he has lost all her money in a business scam, she stands frozen, facing her son. Unseen by her, Big Walter stands alongside her, his profile aligned with hers like its shadow. Together, they watch their son fall apart in a self-lacerating confession.

Near the end of the play, as Walter begins to summon his strength, he tells the spokesman from the all-white neighborhood, Karl Lindner, “We come from people who had a lot of pride.”

Unseen by Walter, his dead father’s hand rests on his shoulder, as if transferring that proud lineage to him. It is a kind of benediction.