Fifty-four years after its groundbreaking Broadway premiere, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun remains as dense, and as concentrated, as its title fruit. The story of a South Side Chicago family hoping to use a $10,000 life-insurance check to escape poverty remains timeless, but Hansberry's Youngers are very specific — and not just specifically black — in the way they express the conflicts between mother and children, men and women, old and young, rich and poor. It's because her characters are so particular that her play is so universal.
Some Raisins are sour; some are sweet. The one from Huntington Theatre Company that's now running at Boston University Theatre (through April 7) is assaultive. Midway through, Mama Younger (Kimberly Scott) tells her son, "I don't 'low no yellin' in this house, Walter Lee, and you know it." If only director Liesl Tommy had seen fit to allow no yelling in this production. Even stripped of the visit from the Youngers' neighbor Mrs. Johnson, the performance runs three hours and 15 minutes, and it's pitched at high intensity from beginning to end.
Credit to the Huntington for Clint Ramos's turntable set, which revolves to show the Youngers' living room/kitchen, one bedroom for Mama and Beneatha (Keona Welch), and one for Walter (LeRoy McClain) and Ruth (Ashley Everage). With its lath-and-no-plaster walls, clotheslines strung here and there, boxes of Raisin Bran and Sugar Crisp, and a cross above the door, it's an imaginatively detailed representation of their tiny tenement flat. And the actors — who also include Jason Bowen as Joseph Asagai and Corey Allen as George Murchison — are certainly accomplished. I just wish they weren't so actorly. The characterizations verge on stereotype, and when the performers aren't declaiming, they're milking their lines, expertly, for sitcom laughs. Hansberry wrote a more nuanced, and less reassuring, play than this production would lead you to believe.
Then there's Big Walter, Mama's late husband, who haunts the proceedings. In Hansberry's script, he's only spoken about, not seen, but at the Huntington, in chalky makeup, he's a visible (to us, but not to the Youngers) presence, coming in and out, putting a supportive hand on Walter's shoulder when he stands up to the (white) Man, giving Mama, at the end, her hat and handbag as if to allay her ambivalence about leaving. The result is an upbeat ending designed to make audiences stand up and cheer. At the press opening, it did just that.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN :: Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston :: Through April 7 :: $30-$95 :: 617.266.0800 or huntingtontheatre.org