by Hugh Hunter

Though I have seen “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry many times, the revival now running at Old Academy Players in East Falls opened my eyes. I was never impressed with the play, but this production brought out its value. I realized for the first time that few performers have the acting chops to play its demanding central roles.

“Raisin” debuted on Broadway in 1959 and won the New York Drama Critic’s Award, a major breakthrough for African American drama. It centers on the desperate dreams of Walter Lee Younger, a menial chauffeur frantic to break out of his Chicago ghetto and become as wealthy as all those white people he squires about town.

With his bodily movement and irritable moods, Jerome Scott captures Walter’s frantic struggle to control his passions. Based on previous productions, I had assumed Hansberry’s script was tricked up. But that is because I never saw a performer genuinely portray Walter’s desperation. (For me, that even includes Sidney Poitier’s mannered movie version.)

Equally trying is Mama, the family matriarch. Try playing a character who is perfectly good. Yet Vanessa D. Ballard pulls it off. Her Mama is thoroughly good-willed and honest. When she laughs, she really laughs; when she cries, she cries. In Ballard’s hands there is not a hint of insincerity in Mama’s wise, anxious effort in bringing her family out of crisis.

The role of Ruth, Walter’s wife, is no walk in the park either. Again, Lynn Shirley comes through in convincing you that Ruth is living a life of distracted agony. The other characters in Raisin at least give the actors some rough edges and character traits to hang their hats on. Teenage William Jiggetts plays Travis, Walter and Ruth’s son. Janae Rockemore is wisecracking, antsy Beneatha Younger, Walter’s sister.

Rounding out a strong cast: Beneatha’s romantic interests, Joseph Asagai (Brian Neal), a Nigerian, and wealthy George Murchison (Isaiah Price). Bobo (Omar Bullock), Walter’s friend and business associate, and Karl Lindner (Breen Rourke) a white community leader who tries to stop the Youngers from moving into his neighborhood.

The production is actor-driven, but director Carla Childs and Janine Lieberman enhance the show with their atmospheric ghetto apartment, and the AfricanAmerican music between scenes is evocative (Sarah Labov, Childs). For sure, the importance of race in American life is front and center. Does the race reality make the Youngers stronger, or does it work to poison their relationships? In “Raisin,” the matter is touch and go.

Walter Lee Younger triumphs in the end. As uniquely enveloping as American apartheid is, “Raisin” has the power to go beyond race when the Younger family makes good on a universal message: Whatever our circumstances, no worldly success is worth having if it demands our self-abasement and dishonor.

Old Academy is located at 3544 Indian Queen Lane. “A Raisin in the Sun” runs through Sept 30. Reservations at 215-843-1109.