Review: 'A Raisin in the Sun' will pull you in and make you think

“A Raisin in the Sun” is directed by Tyrone Beasley, center, who is a newcomer to the Omaha Community Playhouse despite his years in Omaha theater.

There are some new faces onstage in “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

And I hope they become old friends with the 96-year-old theater.

The show is directed by Tyrone Beasley, who’s also a newcomer to the Playhouse despite his years in Omaha theater. His full-time job is as an educator at the Rose Theater.

In interviews leading up to Friday’s premiere, he told me that his philosophy is to encourage his actors to imagine themselves in a play’s situations and then do what comes naturally.

“Acting is human nature,” he says.

A Thursday preview illustrated the success of his methods. I lost myself in these characters and their compelling story, at times virtually forgetting they weren’t real.

Karen Fox, in her first role anywhere, was particularly impressive as the Younger family’s matriarch, Lena, a character who’s onstage more often than not.

The Youngers are eagerly awaiting a life insurance payout from a policy on Lena’s late husband. Family members have a different opinion on how to spend the money and who gets to decide. Son Walter Lee (David Terrell Green, in his Playhouse debut) wants to use a portion of it to invest in a liquor store. His wife Ruth (Faushia R. Weeden, another Playhouse newcomer) and sister Beneatha (Olivia Howard) think it’s up to Lena to determine how to use the funds.

The family faces many familiar issues that magnify the importance of the windfall — discrimination, substandard housing, low-paying jobs, class divisions with both whites and blacks, education, marital strife.

Fox brings an emotional depth to her role that would be notable even in a more veteran performer, from soft-spoken, gentle and nurturing to bitterly angry and anguished. And it all seems totally authentic. You need guts to take on such an important role in your first stage experience, and, apparently, she has them. If she was nervous, it didn’t show, even when she hesitated on lines a couple of times.

Green and Weeden, who have stage experience outside the Playhouse, also delivered real and heartfelt performances, as did Howard, whose character is in college studying pre-med and for a while is torn between an idealistic African student (Donte Lee Plunkett, with a spot-on accent) and rich suitor George Murchison (a suitably snobbish Brandon Williams).

Christopher Scott also was great as a sniveling racist who tries to intimidate the Youngers into giving up a house in his neighborhood.

I have to mention the achingly beautiful music written by Tim Vallier for scene changes, and a set by Steve Williams that matched my mental image of a rundown apartment on the south side of Chicago in the late 1950s. The last time I saw “A Raisin in the Sun,” it was on very small stage on which it was easy to convey the family’s cramped living conditions. I thought that would be lost on a large stage, but Williams made sure it wasn’t.

For a while at the beginning of the play, I wasn’t sure I would like it as much as I did. I was having trouble hearing soft-spoken dialogue, and things seemed tentative and a little languid — perhaps because it was preview night and nerves were showing. It took me a while to get engaged.

But the cast hit its stride, especially in the second act, and I loved it. This is definitely a show that builds to a heated climax and a satisfying ending.

If you’re like me, you’ll compare many of the issues it raises to things happening today, 60 years after it was written.

Go see it, not only for the story and the performances, but because it’s food for thought in 2020.

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‘A Raisin in the Sun’ at the Omaha Community Playhouse

Betsie covers a little bit of everything for The World-Herald's Living section, including theater, religion and anything else that might need attention. Phone: 402-444-1267.

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