Raisin ripened before August Wilson brought the power of the blues and the poetry of black speech to African-American drama. But the Youngers are flesh-and-blood individuals in a flesh-and-blood family, here brought to life by a cast skilled enough to scale McEleney's heightened reality without taking their feet from the familiar, hallowed ground of Hansberry's realism. Impassioned speeches directed toward the audience, instead of across a table festooned with scrambled eggs and coffee, might be disconcerting. But the Trinity actors lob their rhetoric through the fourth wall without leaving the cramped intimacy of parlor and kitchen, where their aspirations, beliefs, affectations, resentments, and dreams butt up against one another's. And McEleney underlines the chafing closeness by eliminating most of the walls within the apartment building, so that we see the off-stage Youngers trudging through the neighborhood, lying on their beds, eavesdropping, or jockeying for the bathroom they share with another family. This makes for a richly textured production in which the performances jump like firecrackers in a well-worn hammock.
The venerable Barbara Meek is a stalwart Lena — frail but square-shouldered, with a sly delivery that brings out the droll humor in Hansberry's seasoned matriarch. And there are spirited turns by Brown/Trinity Rep Consortium students: Lynnette R. Freeman as the worried Ruth; Angela K. Thomas as the headstrong, anti-assimilationist Beneatha; and Charlie Hudson III and Jude Sandy as Beneatha's suitors, preppy African-American collegian George Murchison and confident Nigerian and wanna-be revolutionary Joseph Asagai. Freeman, in particular, finds a touching contrast between Ruth's skeptical, tight-lipped tough love and the hallelujah-ridden exultation with which she says goodbye to the old neighborhood.
The fly in the ointment is the galvanic, physically gifted Joe Wilson Jr., whose portrayal of Walter Lee calls too much attention to itself to attain the brilliance it brushes. For much of the play, Wilson's tightly coiled Walter Lee alternates piquantly between door slamming and depression, between rage and contempt for the dream deferred — not just by a racist society but also, in his view, by the loved ones holding him back. At a certain point, however, it's as if this impressive actor had begun to demonstrate a man whose fury and viscera have taken him over. Never satisfied with being a chauffeur, Walter Lee dreams of becoming the entrepreneur in the plush back seat — but Wilson has become the revved-up car itself.
About the time Lorraine Hansberry was dying of cancer at 34, just five years after the Broadway triumph of A Raisin in the Sun, a smart young lout named Joe Orton was shocking the British theater establishment with his linguistically showy mix of anarchy, irreverence, and polymorphous perversity. Out to follow in Orton's footsteps, wearing the dirty socks of Pirandello, is Liverpool playwright Robert Farquhar, whose Bad Jazz debuted in 2007 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, was produced later that year Off Broadway, and is now dragging its outrû bag of mega-theatrical satire, raunchy sex, and fake entrails our way courtesy of Zeitgeist Stage Company (at the BCA Plaza through February 21). The play begins with a discussion of whether an on-stage sex act should or should not be simulated and moves from there to dildos, dead dogs, and disembowelment. Breath mint, anyone?