Rochester’s Geva Theatre presents vibrant rendition of “A Raisin in the Sun”

To kick off Geva Theatre Center in Rochester’s 40th anniversary, the artistic director decided to revisit Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”

This isn’t the first time the significant play has been on Geva’s stage; its first production was in 1978 and starred a young Samuel L. Jackson. Decades later, the play’s meaning may have changed, yet “Raisin” still tackles fundamental issues in our society.

The show premiered on Broadway’s stage in 1959 and received positive reviews. “Raisin” was the first play written by a black woman to be performed on Broadway and was directed by Lloyd Richards, Broadway’s first black director. A year later, Hansberry’s work was nominated for four Tony awards: Best Play, Best Actor in Play, Best Actress in Play and Best Direction of a Play.

“Raisin” is about the Youngers, a black family of five that lives in a Chicago ghetto and receives a large sum of money from Walter Lee Sr.’s life insurance. Now-widow Lena Younger (played by award-winning Lynda Gravátt) is forced to make the tough decision of how to spend the $10,000.

The play discusses many issues, including tradition versus assimilation, religion and abortion. Hansberry focuses on poverty and racism, both of which become more apparent as the play progresses. The show remains relevant because racism – although much less visible – is still a part of American society.

Scene design, always a highlight of Geva productions, features a small, detailed and well-organized stage. The proportions are comparable to a Chicago apartment and every crack in the wall or tear in fabric adds to the realism. The magic comes in the stunning scene changes, though, which present intense departures from the action.

Each actor in the Younger family does a great job, but Gravátt and Daphne Gaines, who plays Ruth, put on truly stunning performances. Gaines has a stage presence that doesn’t wilt even when she isn’t the focus, and Gravátt brings Lena to life with power and emotion that is very rare even in elite actors.

There are some bumbles that stand to be fixed as the show progresses. Walter Lee Jr., for example, is almost always yelling at someone or exerting power of some kind. This acting may make sense in regard to the character, but it would be better if Bowman Wright’s performance was more dynamic.

In an interesting directorial choice, the same actor plays Beneatha Younger’s two boyfriends. Later in the play, after both boyfriends are introduced, the actor slipped into one’s accent while the other was supposedly offstage, which was very noticeable and confusing given his double casting.

Directed by Robert O’Hara, “A Raisin in the Sun” will play at Geva until March 25. Anyone interested in a look at racism in a more modern setting should see this production while they can.