Among the telling moments in TimeLine Theatre's superb revival of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" is a fleeting bit of business that reveals not just the meticulousness of Ron OJ Parson's direction, but how powerfully Hansberry's play still resonates 54 years after its premiere.
It occurs late in the second act, as a desperate Walter Lee Younger (Jerod Haynes) prepares to surrender his dignity, and that of his family, to a white man who offers them a bribe to keep them from moving from their cramped, roach-infested apartment on Chicago's South Side to a single-family home in the all-white Clybourne Park community.
"A Raisin in the Sun"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave., Chicago, (773) 281-8463, ext. 6, or timelinetheatre.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 17
Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes with intermission
Parking: Metered street parking; paid lots nearby
Rating: For most audiences, middle school and older
Sliding his briefcase onto the dining room table, the well-mannered racist Karl Lindner (Chris Rickett) pushes aside a small, struggling plant, eliciting an audible gasp from the audience whose reaction suggests they understand the symbolism of the gesture.
That was one of many subtle, yet potent moments in Parson's emotionally charged production of this seminal 1959 play, the first by an African-American woman produced on Broadway, and the first by an African-American to win the New York Drama Critics' Circle best play award.
Partly inspired by Hansberry's middle-class family and the backlash they encountered moving into Chicago's segregated Washington Park neighborhood, the play examines race and identity, segregation and discrimination, assimilation and poverty through the experiences of the Youngers, a poor black family living in Chicago during the early 1950s.
An ambitious, insightful play by a writer ahead of her time, "A Raisin in the Sun" deftly balances tragedy with humor. The dialogue is frank and evocative; the characters are carefully drawn and multifaceted.
They are brought memorably to life by Parson's excellent cast, led by the formidable Greta Oglesby as matriarch Lena Younger, a role she understudied during the 2004 Broadway revival starring Phylicia Rashad.
We first encounter the Youngers in their impeccably kept one-bedroom apartment, where they go about their daily routines with the precision and timing born from years spent living in close quarters. Expertly detailed by designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, the set is surrounded on three sides by audience members who enter the space via a long, narrow tenement hallway, through the doorway the residents use.
The play's central conflict has to do with how to spend a $10,000 insurance settlement Lena receives after her husband's death. She wants to purchase the family a home. College student Beneatha (played with youthful passion and a hint of self-centeredness by Mildred Marie Langford) wants to apply the money to her medical school tuition. Walter Lee (Haynes in a compelling portrait of simmering intensity and barely controlled despair) wants to use the money to open a liquor store, which he believes will help lift them into the middle class. His pragmatic wife, Ruth (the excellent Toni Martin, whose quiet desperation is evident in every expression), wants a safe place to raise their son (Alex Henderson).
Orbiting around the family are Beneatha's suitors: wealthy George (Justin James Farley) and Nigerian exchange student Joseph Asagai (Daryl Satcher), a compassionate realist who invites Beneatha to join him in Africa to rebuild communities beginning to emerge from colonial rule.
All of the performances are carefully calibrated and deeply felt. That's especially true of the brilliant Oglesby and Haynes, who draw from a seemingly bottomless well of emotion.
And yet there is a wonderful subtlety to this cast, who convey through their fleeting, knowing expressions as much as they do when they utter Hansberry's words.
The result is a provocative, enduring portrait of a family on the edge, whose economic and emotional condition is as fragile as the plant Lena nurtures -- one that will thrive given a chance and the right soil.