It would be easy, in a lesser production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” for a role like Mama to feel like a stock character – the house’s little old lady with the biggest influence, the matriarch stuck in her old ways, resistant to change and presiding with a stern hand over the two generations with which she shares her busy domicile. Black or white, 1959 or 2012, it’s a familiar character.
But in the magnificent hands of Pat Bowie in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ current revival, the performance feels like one we’ve never seen before, so alive to the nuances, the history of travesties she’s endured, her noble dignity and the fear she can exude in her authority. For Mama, an entire lifetime flashes before our eyes, not just a few scenes, and the compassion Bowie creates, from Lorraine Hansberry’s words, can break hearts and shape lives, in three startling dimensions.
And so it goes with the entirety of this absolutely impeccable cast under the bracingly naturalistic direction of Seret Scott – when the characters wake up in the morning in the opening scene, you can almost feel the sleep in their eyes, and when Mama’s son Walter Lee (Ethan Henry) staggers home drunk, you can practically smell the alcohol on his breath. Walter Lee is the play’s showiest role, the man in the house with big dreams and a small income, bitter at having to chauffer rich white folks, drowning in resentment, hypocrisy and cheap beer, clinging to a desperate dream to open a liquor store with shady funds and extract his family from its ghetto.
At first, Henry seems to be playing louder and faster than the rest of this ensemble, but you realize that that’s the kind of guy Walter Lee is, thinking at 45 revolutions per minute while the rest of the world moves at 33. Henry plays the raging id very well, full of intensity and clearly deep in thought even when his main job onstage is to sulk, crestfallen, into a chair, like Willy Loman.
We also get a subtle performance full of nice surprises from Joniece Abbott Pratt as Beneatha, Walter’s progressive sister, who shuns religion, rejects assimilation and embraces her African heritage, and from Shirine Babb, as Walter’s wife Ruth, long suffering and perpetually keeping together a house on the verge of crumbling. In smaller supporting roles, Marckenson Charles, Jordan Tisdale and Dave Hyland also leave indelible impressions.
At the risk of sounding like a philistine, I found Hansberry’s etched-in-marble source material to be a bit long at two hours and 40 minutes; there are places where a dramaturg might suggest a trim, where similar themes and dualities had already been expressed earlier in the play. But there’s no questioning the elegance and universality of her vision, in a play that touches on gender, class and upbringing as much as racial identity in late 1950s Chicago, in a manner that never feels didactic.
If there is one misstep in Dramaworks’ laudable production, it’s Paul Tate DePoo III’s set design, which is simply too pretty to be a roach-infested project. The kitchen is tiny, but the overall layout is more spacious than cramped, and the lack of dirt and even the quality of the furniture belies the family’s desire to escape.
“A Raisin in the Sun” runs through March 9 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets are $55. Call 561/514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.