It’s been quite a while since the Bay Area saw a new production of Hansberry’s 1959 drama about an African-American family in post-World War II, pre-civil rights Chicago, and Patricia McGregor’s staging, which opened Cal Shakes’ 40th anniversary Saturday, revives it with considerable power and nuance.
That’s not surprising for anyone familiar with this groundbreaking work, which takes its title from the Langston Hughes poem “Harlem.” The first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, it established Hansberry as an original voice in American theater.
McGregor, who staged a vibrant “Spunk” for Cal Shakes in 2012, delivers a penetrating production, and a powerhouse cast embodies Hansberry’s characters with a fine mix of humor and incendiary heat.
Times are hard for the Younger family, headed by matriarch Lena (played with strength and insight by the majestic Margo Hall.) Her dreams of a better life for her children seem as futile as the sad little plant she tries to keep alive on her windowsill (Dede M. Ayite’s cramped Southside tenement set, lighting by Gabe Maxson, sound by Will McCandless and costumes by Katherine Nowacki, effectively create an atmosphere of despair).
The burden of dreams deferred falls hardest on Lena’s son, Walter (Marcus Henderson), whose longing to leave his job as a chauffeur and become his own boss registers with urgency. His wife, Ruth (Ryan Nicole Peters), who works as a domestic, and sister Beneatha (Nemuna Ceesay), studying to become a doctor, each have their own dreams of breaking free.
The arrival of a $10,000 check — the life insurance payout for Lena’s late husband — becomes the catalyst for change.
The cast is sharp: Hall’s Lena is indelible, and Henderson, in his Cal Shakes debut, gives Walter a restless, edgy presence. Peters illuminates Ruth’s sweetness, weariness and yearning, and Ceesay lends Beneatha a bright, sassy edge. There are fine contributions from Rotimi Agbabiaka’s earnest Asagai, Liam Vincent’s insinuating Lindner, Zion Richardson’s articulate Travis, and York Walker’s double turn as George and Bobo.
In McGregor’s faithful staging, “Raisin” remains a telling picture of black life in the ’50s — and a provocative suggestion of the struggles that were still to come.
A Raisin in the Sun
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes June 15
Tickets: $20 to $72
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org