Denzel Washington is a powerful presence as restless working-class family man Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking 1959 play about soul-testing obstacles to one African-American family’s aspirations in South Side Chicago. The minute he walks on stage, the Oscar winner receives a roar of audience delight, and his tightly coiled physicality is a pleasure to watch, with one caveat: Washington’s characteristic aura of forceful energy, as well as the 59-year-old actor’s middle-aged maturity, throws off the emotional balance of this smooth new production, directed by Kenny Leon a decade after he staged a previous Broadway revival of the show. While Washington’s charisma is a great boost for ticket sales, his vitality contradicts just how precarious the dreams of Walter, written as a younger, weaker black man, really are.
It’s also best not to peer too closely at the mere five-year age gap between Washington and LaTanya Richardson Jackson?who sturdily, steadily centers the production with her beautiful performance as Walter’s mother, Lena. As the matriarch of the extended Younger household (which includes Sophie Okonedo as Walter’s wife and a fine Anika Noni Rose as the spirited sister who dreams of becoming a doctor), Richardson Jackson conveys complicated layers of emotion with a simplicity of presence that makes Lena’s climactic scenes all the more stirring. B+