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Huntington’s ‘A Raisin In The Sun’ Leaves Off Where SpeakEasy’s ‘Clybourne Park’ Picks Up

LeRoy McClain as Walter Lee Younger.  (T. Charles Erickson)

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BOSTON — There are certain plays – “Death of a Salesman,” “Hedda Gabler,” “A Raisin in the Sun’’ – where you say, “Do I really want to see this again”? – and then you see a good production of it and you say, “Yeah, of course I do.” And this Huntington Theatre Company production (on the mainstage, through April 7) is an excellent production.

We’ve had a “Glass Menagerie” in town that really reinvents the look of that classic. Director Liesl Tommy and designer Clint Ramos don’t go that far with Lorraine Hansberry’s play, but it’s still a unique staging of the play. We have a wicker revolving stage that really captures the claustrophobia of the apartment building and Tommy also introduces a sixth member of the Younger family to the proceedings, the ghost of Walter’s father looking at his family’s problems silently and ruefully.

At the heart of the production, though, is the superb ensemble. The last “Raisin” I saw was the all-star cast in New York with Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald. That production also featured P. Diddy as Walter, the troubled midgeneration member of the family who can’t find his way in the white man’s world. Mr. Diddy – apologies to the New York Times — was the weakest member of that cast, but and here LeRoy McClain is the strongest, the one who makes the production really sizzle

Which isn’t to take a thing away from the rest of the actors. Here they are talking about the play.

More than anything, the production thoughtfully and emotionally underlines Hansberry’s concerns with race and identity. How much of the dominant culture should African-Americans accept? How far should they strike out on their own?

That was the question for Hansberry, it’s also the question for the characters in Bruce Norris’s contemporary Pulitzer-Tony-Olivier-award winning play, “Clybourne Park” by SpeakEasy Stage Company (at the Boston Center for the Arts, through March 30). The two acts take place in the same house that the Younger family plans to move into in “Raisin.” There’s only one overlapping character and that’s Karl Lindner, the white representative of the homeowners association who tries to talk the Youngers out of moving into the unintegrated Chicago neighborhood.

Here he is, played by Michael Kaye, telling the current owner of the house, played by the wonderful as always Tom Derrah, about whom his agent has sold the house to.

But as charged as that excerpt is, it’s also a very funny play and a very moving one. Norris says that it isn’t a play about race. In many ways it’s about a dream deferred, the title of the Langston Hughes poem that “A Raisin in the Sun” is taken from.

Still, it’s hard to get away from race, even when some insist we’re living in postracial America, as the contemporary folks in the second act find out. They’re different characters but played by the same actors as in the first act. They walk on eggshells trying not to talk about race before it all turns into a very messy omelet.

This ensemble, under M. Bevin O’Gara, is also excellent, as all of SpeakEasy’s tend to be. Theater marathons seem to be popular these days, but together or separately, “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Clybourne Park” make for a great double feature.

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