The spark of rebellion, the kind that makes a man stand up and fight, has almost been extinguished in Walter Lee Younger. As portrayed by Denzel Washington in Kenny Leon’s disarmingly relaxed revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun — which opened on Thursday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater — Walter appears worn down, worn out and about ready to crawl into bed for good. Frankly, he looks a whole lot older than you probably remember him.
That’s partly because, at 59, Mr. Washington, the much laureled movie star, is about a quarter of a century older than the character he is playing, at least as written. (This production bumps Walter’s age up to 40 from 35.) But it’s also because, as this production of Raisin makes clearer than any I’ve seen before, Walter inhabits a world that ages men like him fast.
Listen to how his mama, Lena (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), describes her late husband’s existence: “I seen him, night after night, come in, and look at that rug, and then look at me, the red showing in his eyes, the veins moving in his head. I seen him grow thin and old before he was 40, working and working like somebody’s horse.”
In this engrossingly acted version of Hansberry’s epochal 1959 portrait of an African-American family, Walter is all too clearly his father’s son. Lena may tell him, shaking her head, that he is “something new, boy.” But you know that her great fear is that he is not. Small wonder she shows such smothering protectiveness to Walter’s 11-year-old son, Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins).
A claustrophobic fatigue pervades the cramped, South Side Chicago apartment in which A Raisin in the Sun is set. And despite its often easygoing tone, a happy ending feels far from guaranteed. As designed by Mark Thompson, the Youngers’ living room cum kitchen is a narrow corridor that keeps its three generations of inhabitants in close, erosive proximity.
The production begins with a searing vision of bone-weariness. Ruth Younger (Sophie Okonedo), Walter’s wife, stands frozen center stage in a bathrobe, amid sallow morning light. Her face is harrowed, and her arms are braced against the kitchen counter in what is almost a crucifix position. She is trying to find the strength to get through another day.
Mr. Leon relaxes that initial tautness for the scene that follows, in which the Youngers — who also include Walter’s sister, Beneatha (a first-rate Anika Noni Rose), a pre-med student — go through their usual morning rituals. And the play as a whole has a genial, conversational quality; it always holds you, but without trying to shake you.
Still, that opening scene strikes a note that will resonate. Exhaustion is pulling at the Youngers like a dangerous force of gravity. As Hansberry puts it in her stage directions, “Weariness has, in fact, won in this room.”
That the above-the-title star of Raisin also at first seems to embody this quality may startle his fans. On screen (and in the 2010 Broadway production of Fences), Mr. Washington has shown himself a master of a commanding, combustible stillness that whispers of explosions to come.
Hansberry’s script describes Walter as “as a lean, intense young man,” who is “inclined to quick nervous movements and erratic speech habit.” That’s certainly the impression that Sidney Poitier, who created the role on stage, gives in the 1961 film version. Even Sean Combs (a.k.a. Puff Daddy), the uneasy star of the 2004 Broadway revival, evoked some of that spasmodic energy.
Yet Mr. Washington’s more laid-back approach has a persuasive emotional logic, and it adds a different kind of suspense to Raisin. As the play tells its familiar story of the Youngers’ attempts to leave the South Side for the suburbs, with the life insurance money left by Lena’s husband, we’re less worried that Walter is going to erupt into violence than sink into stasis, dragging his family down with him.
This interpretation makes Walter less the coiled center of Raisin than usual, and I think it helps justify the return of Mr. Leon — who also directed the 2004 revival — to a much-performed play after only a decade. (It’s also worth remembering that in the intervening years, Broadway has seen Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, an inventive riff on Raisin.)
This Raisin feels far more of a whole than Mr. Leon’s earlier production (which featured Tony-winning work from Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald). Despite the central presence of a movie megastar, the 2014 Raisin has a welcome egalitarianism. It’s a bona fide ensemble piece, in which we’re newly and acutely aware of the dynamics that define the Youngers.
We’re allowed to get to know the family without having to squint to see the real people behind the social archetypes. And a drama often presented as something monumental, to be approached with awe and piety, becomes refreshingly accessible.
If this interpretation lacks the hot molten urgency my ideal Raisin would possess, it also feels less like a period piece than any I’ve seen. Despite the play’s old-fashioned structure and sentimentality, as we watch Mr. Leon’s production, we feel it is happening in the present tense, in our own world of recessionary anxieties.
Ms. Jackson’s Lena, for example, is not the customary tower of saintly strength. She can be a captious and irritable mother-in-law to Ruth, and you feel the friction between the dominating women in Walter’s life. The beautiful Ms. Okonedo (an Oscar nominee for Hotel Rwanda) offers us a more patently fragile, breakable Ruth than usual.
There is also, however, a real sensuality here. Mr. Washington’s performance allows us to grasp the boyish charm that first won Ruth. You also sense the sexual charge that still flickers for this long-married couple. And there’s a marvelous scene of near-coitus interruptus in which a drunken Walter and a wistful Ruth remember the hot love that was — and which their current living conditions seldom allow them to act on.
Even within an eminent cast — which also includes the theater director David Cromer (!) as the sole (and very officious) white character and the August Wilson stalwart Stephen McKinley Henderson — Ms. Rose stands out as a revelatory Beneatha. This strutting, endearingly affected young woman is torn between two very different suitors (the Nigerian student played by the excellent Sean Patrick Thomas and the assimilationist rich boy portrayed by Jason Dirden).
Hansberry admitted in interviews that the self-consciously intellectual Beneatha was partly a satirical self-portrait. And Ms. Rose (a Tony winner for Caroline, or Change) gives us the natural grace and awkwardness of a vital young mind trying on new ideas to see if they fit.
This production brims with empathy for all the Youngers, but it also sees their faults clearly. And in the evolution of Beneatha — who begins with all the judgmental arrogance of youth — we catch an invaluable glimmer of the playwright’s sensibility in the making. Beneatha presumably goes on to become a doctor. We know what Hansberry became. As this estimable production reminds us, we have good reason to be grateful she made the choice she did.