Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Brian McConkey.
Great tech can enhance a theatrical experience. A brilliant use of lighting, a particularly outstanding set, sound design that puts us in the middle of the action: these things can make a good show even better. Bad tech, on the other hand, can pull an audience right out of the production, forcing them to focus on things other than the performances, no matter how strong those might be. And that, unfortunately, was the case at the opening performance of Invictus Theatre’s A Raisin in the Sun at Pride Arts Center, where a generally strong cast working with a classic script by Lillian Hansberry was undermined repeatedly by tech that at times bordered on disastrous.
I should begin by saying that it is entirely conceivable that press night technical issues might merely be growing pains that will sort themselves out. For this reason, I generally ignore all but the most egregious ones (and sometimes even those) when I write reviews. And some of the tech problems with this show, such as music that failed to come on when an actor was turning dials on a radio or placing a needle on a record, are indeed probably of that variety. Others, however, were more problematic and seemed more like decisions on the part of director Aaron Reese Boseman (a Jeff Award winner who should know better) and his designers, which is too bad because the play itself is otherwise effective.
Boseman’s cast is strong, and their portrayals of the three generations of the struggling Younger family are almost enough to overcome the major issues that plague this production, which I’ll get to in a minute. Anchored by Cheryl Frazier’s deeply internalized performance as matriarch Lena, they bring us into this family at a crossroads in its history. Lena has recently lost her husband and, at the play’s start, is waiting for a life insurance payment of $10,000 that promises new hope for her brood. She wants to use it to finally get them out of the cockroach-infested ghetto apartment and into a real house in a better section of the city. (Raisin is set in Chicago.)
Her children have other ideas about how to use the windfall. Beneatha (known as Binny and played by the fascinating Ashley Joy) is a twenty-year-old med student who is learning to assert her independence from the expectations of “assimilationist” tradition and who hopes that the money will assure that she can complete her education and become a doctor; her mother is all in favor of this. Lena is less enthused about the plans of her generally sullen son Walter Lee (Michael Lewis), who is determined to escape his dead-end job as a chauffeur by investing with friends in a liquor store. She sees this as a very unwise use of the money even though she understands his need to become his own man.
Lewis is often sensational, especially in scenes with Nyajai Ellison, who plays his wife Ruth. His powerful, brooding, often drunken presence is a constant statement about the lot of Black men in our society and easily helps to explain Ruth’s initial emotional breakdown at the thought of bringing another child into their world. (Her first child is Travis, played enthusiastically by Nelson Simmons.) Between them, Lewis and Ellison have the most extremes to play here and they complement each other well although I rather wish that director Boseman had not chosen so often to highlight those emotional peaks and valleys by leaving Ellison standing forever with a single emotion etched clearly on her face or by bathing Lewis in red light and encouraging him to act almost maniacally—not just once, but twice.
Keith Surney, Jo Schaffer, Lewis Jones, Courtney Gardner, and Jake Busse also appear in roles that highlight the difficult choices that the Youngers must make and allow us to see more sides of these characters. One of the best scenes involves Schaffer as Binny’s Nigerian suitor, who brings her wrap dresses from his homeland which leads to a frantic scene in which she leans into that tradition while continuing to defy the one her family is experiencing as Walter Lee leaps onto the table, asserting his own independence.
Boseman’s pacing is slow and deliberate, which gives the actors more time with Hansberry’s powerful dialogue but, given the play’s well over three hour running time, might not have been the best choice. However, it was the more obvious technical problems repeatedly plaguing the show that caused most of the issues.
Among these issues were lights, designed by Michael NJ Wright, that randomly dimmed and brightened with no motivating purpose. There were a few moments when such changes were intended to enhance the power of a scene, but too often they just seemed to happen with no rhyme or reason. Sound, too, was a persistent issue. Aside from the aforementioned missed cues and others that were simply too loud, the design itself was disruptive. Christie Chiles Twillie has composed some lovely original jazz music for the soundtrack here, and when someone played the radio or record player it was perfectly fine, although it might have been nice if Warren Levon’s design had taken into consideration which side of the stage the sound was coming from. What created a distraction, though, were the many times when that same jazz music was used as a mood enhancer or between scenes, arriving suddenly out of nowhere and ending just as abruptly. When it has been established that a sound comes from machines onstage, that same sound can’t simply start and stop in the middle of scenes when no one is anywhere near those machines. (A sweet little coda moment, featuring soft piano music, fared much better.)
Sound direction was also an issue during the play’s other notable design moment, the thunderstorm, during which the noise of thunder and rain came from stage left when the only window in the room was on stage right. And that rain also was a problem in itself, as it was a looped effect with extremely noticeable pauses between loops.
Another problem was in the area of set design. Though Kevin Rolfs’ ratty apartment seemed, at first glance, perfectly appropriate for the poor 50s family at the play’s center, its door placement unraveled any sense that it could exist in the real world, as the entrance to the apartment, which also led to the hallway to the floor’s shared bathroom, was somehow center stage, between two other doors leading to bedrooms. (I’m trying to imagine a reasonable architectural explanation for what would have to be a long, narrow hallway between these rooms leading to a front door, but I’m failing miserably.) In addition, one of these bedrooms was set off not by a door but by a curtain, through the edges of which the empty backstage space is often clearly visible, as is the pile of costume items placed on the floor directly behind it. And all of this was enhanced by a seriously creaky stage floor that often interrupted the proceedings as actors moved about backstage. (These actors also at times could be seen behind that curtain or when a door opened.)
One set design element that is actually quite nice is a working stovetop on which Ellison’s Ruth can cook real bacon and eggs and heat up oatmeal for breakfast, though honestly it hardly seems necessary when the food is barely even touched by the actors. If only this level of verisimilitude had been applied elsewhere…for example, to the refrigerator that contained only those items explicitly called for in the script.
Invictus Theatre’s A Raisin in the Sun is not a bad production; in fact in many ways it’s quite a good one. It’s just impossible to write an unequivocal recommendation of a show that continually rips the audience out of its scenes in ways that could and should have been avoided. If you go to see it, and you can ignore all of these issues, you’ll find at its core a play with a lot of heart and a cast that deserved better.
A Raisin in the Sun is an Invictus Theatre production now playing at the Buena Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL, until Mar 15. The show runs approximately 3:15; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.