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Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" More Searing Than Ever at TimeLine

‘A Raisin in the Sun’

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

When: Through Nov. 17

Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington

Tickets: $35-$48

Info: (773) 281-8463, ext. 6; www.timelinetheatre.com

Run time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission

It was in 1959 when Chicago-bred playwright Lorraine Hansberry, just 29, saw her career-making work, “A Raisin in the Sun,” become the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. She died of cancer just five years later.

Watching “A Raisin in the Sun” now, particularly the volcanic production that opened Wednesday at TimeLine Theatre under the stellar direction of OJ Parson, you can only weep for all the additional work that “might have been.” Yet at the same time you might very well find yourself marveling at just how how many potent questions and emotions Hansberry was able to pack into this single play, how prescient she was on every subject she addressed, how gifted she was at devising many deep, complex, exquisitely formed characters, and how, as all great playwrights can do, she was able to flip the tone of her play on a dime — moving from tragedy to comedy to satire with the greatest of ease.

“A Raisin in the Sun” is a breathtaking accomplishment — one that grows more potent and eerily timely with every exposure. Although it homes in on the working class Younger family, Hansberry’s play was inspired by her own middle class family’s battles in Chicago’s racially discriminatory housing market. But real estate is only the most obvious facet of her story. Her play (take a big breath here) deals with: The African American family; the struggle for manhood and economic freedom; the role of the matriarch; black identity; assimilation versus “ghetto-itis”; the snobbery of the black middle class; the role of the church; the issue of abortion, and, beyond these shores, the future of Africa. (Although Hansberry was writing when most of Africa was still under colonial rule, yet she even forecast the massive corruption that would follow independence.)

“A Raisin in the Sun” is set in motion by the arrival of an insurance check for $10,000 made out to Lena Young (the altogether miraculous Greta Oglesby, who performed this role as standby for Phylicia Rashad in this play’s 2004 Broadway revival). This is the blood, sweat and tears money from her husband, who died young after years in a steel mill. And it creates havoc in the Younger household, where Lena and her daughter-in-law, Ruth (the quietly seductive Toni Martin), hope to use it for the down payment on a house; where Ruth’s husband, limo driver Walter Lee (the volatile Jerod Haynes), wants to open a liquor store; and where Walter’s sister, Beneatha (an ideally self-dramatizing Mildred Marie Langford) wants tuition money for medical school, though she is temporarily distracted by a conservative, wealthy suitor, George (spot-on Justin James Farley), and a Nigerian exchange student, Joseph (charming Daryl Satcher). (Alex Henderson brings a comic spark to Travis, Lena’s young grandson, with solid work by Chris Rickett and Wardell Julius Clark, too.)

Working in what can only be described as TimeLine’s “magical space” (enhanced by Brian Sidney Bembridge’s richly environmental set), the play sounds notes both familiar and entirely fresh. Earlier this week I watched as 500 inmates at the Cook County jail were treated to a performance of “Othello: The Remix,” the hip-hop riff on Shakespeare. They moved to the beat, but Hansberry’s play would have shaken their souls.

[NOTE: TimeLine is in the process of installing a motorized lift for handicapped theatergoers. The completion date is still tba.]

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic