Dallas Theater Center Does Right by Classic Drama A Raisin in the Sun

As a big, important American classic, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun deserves every bit of the respect and care it's getting in Dallas Theater Center's latest staging (the third in the company's history) at the Wyly Theatre. What a beautiful production, every moment crafted for maximum impact. An exquisite two and a half hours of theater.

Jubilee Theatre artistic director Tre Garrett has directed the fine cast led by DTC resident company member Liz Mikel, who finally gets a role that shows off her serious acting chops. We usually see Mikel in musicals, glammed up in sparkly gowns and thick eyelashes, belting bluesy numbers that rattle your ribcage.

In this play's central role as sturdy, hardworking 1950s widow Lena Younger, Mikel's still powerful, her voice booming out across the thrust stage. But weighed down by a lifetime of struggle, her Lena, already an old woman in her 50s, is the opposite of glamorous. She wears sensible glasses and sensible shoes, her flowered cotton dresses and aprons hanging limply from waist to hem. (Period costumes by Karen Perry capture the time and place in plain styles made of fabrics in dull pastels and muddy sepias.)

So much of Mikel's superb portrayal of Lena reflects those lines from the Langston Hughes poem "Dream Deferred" that inspired the title of the 1959 play: "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? ... Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.'' Mikel's Lena comes through the front door panting from the long climb up a staircase we can't see on designer Bob Lavallee's set, a three-room tenement flat on Chicago's South Side that somehow manages to sprawl across the Wyly stage and still feel like a claustrophobic place for five people to occupy.

In A Raisin in the Sun the simple dream shared by the Younger family is about wanting better things for their children. One of those things is space to breathe. Three generations of Youngers live in the apartment where Lena and her late husband moved in just after they were married. It was to be a temporary home before they bought a house. But tough times kept them there and tough times are all that Lena, her college-age daughter Beneatha (played with real spark by Tiffany Hobbs), married son Walter Lee (versatile Bowman Wright), his wife Ruth (the glorious Ptosha Storey) and their 10-year-old son Travis (Christopher Adkins) have ever known. They're all suffocating from unrelenting proximity. Each day starts with a race to get alone time in the bathroom out in the hall that they have to share with other tenants.

When the play begins, the family is waiting for a long-delayed $10,000 check, the insurance payout from the death of Walter Sr. The money is their chance to break out of poverty. What happens when some of the money is carelessly lost tests the family dynamic. In 1959 this play was called "the Negro Cherry Orchard" for good reasons. The Youngers are prisoners of their environment, as desperate to escape that roach-infested apartment as the mortgage-challenged Russians were to get off their cherry farm.

Garrett's direction and the cast at DTC deliver the play's humor and pathos with the kind of honesty in the acting that honors Hansberry's funny-sad realistic dialogue. When smart, sassy Beneatha, a pre-med student, cracks that "we've all got acute ghetto-itis" when one of her boyfriends drops by, we know she's embarrassed (hey, the ironing board's always out) but also plenty proud of where she's from.

All the performances are terrific, particularly Hobbs, doing her best work here yet. And Storey, perpetually ironing as Ruth, brings down the house hollering "Hallelujah! Goodbye, misery!" when the check arrives.

But this play is first and foremost a showcase for the Dallas theater treasure playing big, bossy, beautiful Lena Younger. At one point in the second act the character says, "It makes a difference in a man when he can walk on floors that belong to him." In this play, every plank on that stage belongs to Liz Mikel.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner