Susan Saccoccia | 3/20/2013, 11:02 a.m.
Unfolding in three acts, this production moves with the layered emotional music of the family, from its turbulent storms to light-hearted scenes of a dancing Beneatha joyfully embracing an African boyfriend’s cultural traditions.
At the center of the play and the family is Lena, the voice of love and truth, portrayed with majesty by Kimberly Scott.
Scott’s companion in inner heft, Ashley Everage endows Walter’s wife Ruth with a weary loveliness as well as sardonic humor and a wide scale of emotions, from dread that Walter does not want the baby she is carrying to elation about the family’s new home.
Telling her family why she bought the house, Lena says, “We was going backwards ‘stead of forwards … When it gets like that in life — you just got to do something different, push on out and do something bigger.”
Lena slaps Beneatha for denying God, chastises Walter for not reassuring his wife and seeing his brokenness, turns her money over to him.
Acting the part of a man in meltdown, Leroy McClain at times overplays Walter’s intensity in his scenes of angry confrontation. Yet in quieter moments, McClain is riveting, even magnificent, as he reveals Walter’s tenderness, joy and vulnerability.
Although Beneatha sparks much of the play’s humor, she is also a force in her family. At first, Keona Welch is a trifle too adorable in the role of Beneatha, and nearly turns her character into a lightweight. But as she interacts with Scott’s Lena and Everage’s Ruth, her Beneatha gels into a strong character, balancing winsome style with earthy substance.
The set by Clint Ramos rotates on a platform to show the Youngers in their kitchen and living room, stairwell and small bedroom. In this worn, crammed apartment, Ruth and Lena bring order by folding clothes, ironing, preparing meals, cleaning and occasionally, stomping cockroaches.
Costumes by Kathleen Geldard suit the characters. Dressed for school in his sweater vest, Travis (a part shared by Cory Janvier and Zaire White) looks like a beloved child. Beneatha’s shapely dresses give her the look of a ‘50s ingénue.
Lighting by Lap Chi Chu lends a surreal quality to some scenes, including an intimate episode between Walter and his son. In a stirring performance by McClain, Walter conjures for Travis their family’s proud ancestral past. As he speaks, the two step into a shaft of light, leaving their cramped apartment behind.
Invisible to the family is the ghost of Big Walter. Dressed in grey, he sits stone-still in the kitchen, turning slightly only to watch his son and grandson when they enter the room. Performed with wordless eloquence by Corey Allen, who also plays George, the ghost is an invention of the director. Without interfering with the play, his presence underscores the lineage of pride and self-respect that Lena strives to nurture in her family.
When Walter tells Lena that he has lost all her money in a business scam, she stands frozen, facing her son. Unseen by her, Big Walter stands alongside her, his profile aligned with hers like its shadow. Together, they watch their son fall apart in a self-lacerating confession.
Near the end of the play, as Walter begins to summon his strength, he tells the spokesman from the all-white neighborhood, Karl Lindner, “We come from people who had a lot of pride.”
Unseen by Walter, his dead father’s hand rests on his shoulder, as if transferring that proud lineage to him. It is a kind of benediction.