Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway in 1959, becoming the first play written by an African-American woman to do so.
Fifty-four years later, Palm Beach Dramaworks has staged a sturdy, and sometimes searing, production of the drama that can still twist your stomach into knots, even in the Obama era.
As the story starts to unfold, you have no idea that Hansberry is willing to go that far (unless you’ve seen other adaptations, including the 1961 movie with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett Jr. and Diana Sands repeating their Broadway stage roles). The first 15 or 20 minutes seem to be just a slice of life as the Younger family rises early to start their day in a tiny but tidy Chicago South Side apartment. There’s breakfast to cook, a child to rouse for school and a race to the apartment building’s community bathroom to be run.
Even though the play is written as three acts, director Seret Scott here has divided the show into two, which makes for a long first act but keeps the momentum naturally arching over 2 1/2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.
So after that languid prologue, we are jolted by the spiraling issues that come into play as the Youngers wait for a substantial insurance payment that could mean a new life for the working-class family of housekeepers and a chauffeur.
For the matriarch, Lena (fully embodied by Pat Bowie), it means finally being able to buy a house for her family with a back yard for gardening — even if it means moving to a white neighborhood. For her son, Walter Lee (Ethan Henry, masterful in a real workout of a role), and his wife, Ruth (Shirine Babb, so natural, so effortless), it means an investment opportunity for him and security for their expanding family for her. For Lena’s daughter, Beneatha (Joniece Abbott Pratt, adequately dealing with the soaring, more-poetic parts of the script), the check offers the chance to finish medical school.
The production design is excellent: a well-worn apartment set; era-accurate costumes and sound design featuring jazzy interludes.
For a “then” show, this sure feels like a “now” show.
“A Raisin in the Sun” runs through March 3 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Shows are 8 p.m. Wednesdays though Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; and 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost $55. Call 561-514-4042 or visit PalmBeachDramaworks.org.