“A Raisin in the Sun:” A Perfect Play for TimeLine, Done to Perfection

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Lena “Mama” Younger (Greta Oglesby, left) wants to help her son Walter Lee (Jerod Haynes), who is dreaming of a better life.

For a Chicago theatre company that strives to “present stories inspired by history that connect with today’s social and political issues,” it is certainly no surprise to see TimeLine start off its new season with Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” and hard to imagine any play more appropriate. The play earned Hansberry the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Year when it opened on Broadway in 1959 – the first play by a black person to win the award — and has proved its staying power since.

Under the direction of Ron OJ Parson, with a talented cast and flawless set design this classic is once again brought back to a Chicago stage and performed with all the passion and perfection it deserves. The audience enters the Timeline stage through what becomes the Younger’s front door, and while having more stage space than many of Chicago’s small storefronts, you may never find yourself feeling closer to a production.

The play’s title is a line from the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred,” and ”A Raisin in the Sun” is as much about dreams as it is about anything else. However, dreams are deferred and derailed for a number of reasons, and throughout the play that is where the heavier themes enter – themes of race, poverty, heritage, family and marriage.

While a story about a white family living in Chicago in the 1950s could probably tackle dreams deferred while choosing to ignore issues of race and class, it would be nearly impossible when examining the lives of a black family at that time. Racism in America generally conjures up scenes of Klansmen and the Jim Crow south, but the segregation of the city’s neighborhoods then (and sadly, now) is proof the prejudice and hatred was just as rampant up north.

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Karl Lindner (Chris Rickett, left) represents the Clybourne Park neighborhood and has a proposition for the Younger family, and Beneatha (Mildred Marie Langford, from left), Ruth (Toni Martin) and Walter Lee (Jerod Haynes) hear him out at first.

The “N” word is used only once in the production and by a black character, but Karl Lindner (Chris Rickett) walking into the Younger house and offering to pay them to, in so many words, “stay with their own kind, in their own neighborhood,” is just as disturbing. The Younger family is not surprised all that much by the representative and laughs almost hysterically when he leaves. After all, he was the Clybourne Park “Welcome Wagon.” Lindner seems to fancy himself a progressive because instead of burning a cross in front of it, he’s offering to buy their house at a profit so long as they agree to never occupy it, but the message is still the same: the family is not welcome. The scene is powerful and further evidence that racial intolerance, ignorance and segregation are just synonyms for hatred.

However, the family’s struggles begin before deciding to buy the home. Living in a small, roach-infested apartment with low-wage jobs, Walter Lee Younger dreams of a better life for his family and himself. His mother is about to receive a $10,000 life insurance payout from her late husband (close to$80,000 in 2013 money) and he thinks they should invest the money in a liquor store. While he’s right that “people will always be buying liquor,” his religious mother, Lena (Greta Oglesby) is firm in her stance that “that doesn’t mean I need to be the one selling it to them.”

Walter’s sister Beneatha (Mildred Marie Langford) is studying biology in college with plans to go to medical school and Lena wants at least some of the money reserved for that. Growing distressed watching what the money is doing to the family, she decides to capture a little of the dream she and her husband had by buying a house, with enough left over for med school and the remainder for Walter to begin building his dreams.

Making his TimeLine debut, Haynes is especially noteworthy in his ability to convey a man who is haunted by his own dreams. He is at his worst when trying to be his best and while it hurts those around him, his mother explains to the family that is when they must love him the most.

The play is not short on great female performances, but Oglesby leaves nothing to be desired. Struggling to understand her maturing children while mourning the loss of her husband she is forced to take on the role left by the passing of the patriarch, knowing her son is not yet ready to fill those shoes. In dealing with the family dynamics of the story the cast are incredibly in tune with one another and with the set around them you will forget that you are not sitting in someone’s living room in 1959.

Opening Wednesday, on the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech,” at the National Mall was an even greater reminder why this play is so important, so relevant and so touching. I cannot recommend “A Raisin in the Sun” at TimeLine enough and urge you to go see it.

Tickets are $35-$48 and available at the Theatre Box Office at 773-281-8463 or online at timelinetheater.com. Showtimes are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m. “A Raisin in the Sun” runs through November 17 at TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. in Chicago. For calender information, visit www.theaterinchicago.com