When Lorraine Hansberry was 29 years old, she earned her place in history. The granddaughter of slaves, she became the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway in 1959. "A Raisin in the Sun," a tale of race, class and destiny that takes its title from Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem," is hailed as having changed the face of the American theater forever.
Patricia McGregor's resonant revival of this American landmark taps into the timelessness of the characters, the way their struggles to keep their heads above water echo our own. If the production lacks a sense of urgency surrounding the rise and fall of Walter Lee Younger, the women of this world are etched with such heartbreaking clarity that Hansberry's masterpiece still shakes us to the core. This emotionally stirring revival launches Cal Shakes' 40th anniversary season on a potent note.
McGregor, who directed the hit "Spunk" in 2012, has cast three powerhouse actresses as the women of the Younger household. The estimable Margo Hall, a veteran of the Campo Santo company, gilds Mama Lena Younger, the matriarch of this Chicago family, with the weight and grandeur of a queen. She rules over this squalid South Side ghetto apartment (an apt set by Dede M. Ayite) with equal parts resilience and grit, rising above the cockroaches and despair because she believes that her suffering will lighten the load for her children.
When she receives a $10,000 life insurance payout after the death of her husband, she puts a down payment on a house in the white part of town, unaware that her little family may not be welcome there. She nurtures the dream of a better life, just as she waters her bedraggled potted plant, even when it seems certain that both will wilt and die.
Ryan Nicole Peters etches Lena's daughter-in-law Ruth with great sensitivity. Walter Younger's wife doesn't usually get a chance to speak her mind but Peters colors her glances with so much exhaustion and regret that you always feel the impact of her presence. Peters also shows us how easily Ruth blossoms in a rare moment of kindness from her husband.
Finally Nemuna Ceesay plays the nimble-witted Beneatha, the young woman ambitious enough to want to become a doctor and smart enough to make it happen despite the pressures of society. This is the character believed to be a surrogate for the playwright, a woman who felt the dynamism and danger of being "young, gifted and black."
While Marcus Henderson doesn't fully capture the scope and depth of Walter's bitterness, the pain and anger that fuels his every move makes clear "Raisin's" power to move us.
The playwright's genius lies in the universality of her empathy. She makes us feel for everyone in the bone-weary world of the play, from the smug young intellectuals to the fools seduced by get-rich-quick schemes. Most of all, she makes us ache for the way that a lifetime of poverty can corrode the soul.
When Mama gives Walter Lee the lion's share of the insurance money, it is not because she doesn't realize he may be lead astray. It's because she would do anything to give him a sense of pride in himself as a black man in a white man's world.
She explains: "I seen him, night after night, come in, 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."
She gives him his shot at the brass ring even though she is morally opposed to his liquor store business idea. Just as Walter's wife Ruth gives him her love even though he has long since stopped deserving it. It is the lot of the women of "Raisin" to prop up the men of the family even at great cost to themselves.
Although Hansberry sculpts this portrait of 1950s ghetto life with unerring specificity, it is the heart-stopping relevance of the narrative that is so unsettling. She takes a clear-eyed but always humane look at the way marriages crumble, the way one generation lets down another and the way dreams are broken as well as deferred, then and now and probably forever.
By Lorraine Hansberry, presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Through: June 15
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (off Highway 24), Orinda
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $20-$72, 510-548-9666. www.calshakes.org