‘Raisin In the Sun’ Shines at Huntington Theatre Company (Five Stars)

A Raisin in the Sun, Written by Lorraine Hansberry; Directed by Liesl Tommy; Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company at Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre 264 Huntington Ave., Boston through April 7th. www.huntingtontheatre.org

There are some works in theater that lend themselves to modernization, for instance “West Side Story” being updated into late 1950’s New York from “Romeo and Juliet.” But some should be left in the specific time and place where they were originally conceived. So when The Huntington Theatre Company’s excellent production of “Raisin in the Sun” opened with a decidedly hip-hop musical blast (which I’d ordinarily enjoy), I turned to the woman next to me and said, “I hope they’re not going to screw with this.” She assured me that they wouldn’t (she knew, as her daughter played one of the lead roles) and I was relieved to see that when the lights came on and the crummy apartment that houses three generations of the Younger family came into view, it was indeed “somewhere between World War II and 1959” – as in pre-civil rights America. And that is important, because even though anyone who reads the comments section of any online newspaper article that mentions the Obamas can tell you, racism isn’t dead, it’s just that the institutionalized versions of that cancer are a lot less obvious. And although race is a dominant factor – the Youngers are a “colored” family struggling with economic deprivation in the slums of Chicago – the universal theme of how a sudden infusion of money into a family can potentially bring as much harm as good is also the substance of this blistering production.

The play opens with Lena Younger (the wonderful Kimberly Scott) about to receive a $10,000 life insurance check (about $85,000 in 2013 dollars) for the passing of her husband. She has her own ideas about what she’s like to do with the windfall – namely put a down payment on a house like her workaholic laborer husband always wanted to do, and to also pay for her daughter Beneatha’s medical school education. But son Walter (an incredibly intense Leroy McClain) has his eyes on “investing” the money with some of his less-than-upstanding buddies – in a liquor store. Walter’s wife Ruth (Ashley Everage) sides with her mother-in-law, causing friction between Walter and her, and he accuses her of “always holding him back.” Walter is a guy who has “big ideas” for a man who has spent his adult life as a chauffeur for a wealthy white man, and he also appears to have a profound fondness for booze and blaming other people for his lot in life. He spends much of his idle time thinking of how he’d spend his time and money when his ship comes in, but he never seems to find a way to get on board.

Beneatha (Keona Welch) is a beautiful, radically progressive 20-year old for her time, rejecting the advances of a wealthy young black suitor in favor of the attention of a Nigerian immigrant who tries to seduce her with the promises of returning her to her imagined African roots. She rejects the ideas of the American Dream as inherently shallow, but it’s readily obvious that her ideals are not particularly well grounded in reality. Ruth is a good mother to the couple’s son, Travis, and although weary of her husband’s childish wish life, essentially goes along to get along in the early going.

Lena, who walks a fine line between a loving bedrock matriarch and controlling mother, decides to put a down payment on a house, but also allows for Walter to assume some responsibility for making choices with the money. What he does and how it plays out for the family is the substance of the play and the cast delivers beautifully in this production. As Walter, McClain is a spectacular study in a man who has never quite grown up into a responsible adult. He is alternately petty, loving, manipulative, domineering, confident and full of doubt, and some of his scenes are the most powerful I have seen on any stage this year. As Beneatha, Welch is a complex study in pre-feminism pride, rejecting conventional mores but not really sure where she wants to go after rejecting those ideas. And Everage plays Ruth beautifully, with a combination of resignation and fear before she becomes more whole as the plot moves forward.

The set is really imaginative, with the see-through two-bedroom apartment mounted on a carousel and rotating as needed to eliminate scene changes. The supporting actors are terrific too, with Will McGarrahan playing the part of the representative from the white neighborhood of Clybourne Park and Maurice E. Parent as Walter’s drinking buddy/business associate, Bobo. This is a terrific production of a ground-breaking work.

For more, see www.huntingtontheatre.org