Compare and contrast: “Grey Gardens” at the Ahmanson Theatre (Downtown L.A. Music Center) and “A Raisin in the Sun,” at Ruskin Group Theatre. One with sizeable budgets, big stars and a big commercial stage, the other a small house (50-plus seats), a tricky L-shaped stage, a limited budget and skilled actors who aren’t necessarily stars.
Which has a better chance of succeeding? In my book, you can skip the trip to DTLA and stay in your own backyard for a superior theater experience at The Ruskin.
“Grey Gardens” boasts two big stage names, Betty Buckley and Rachel York. And if you know the story, saw the original Maysles Brothers documentary or the HBO film version with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, you might ask yourself, as I did, why would you even want to turn this into a musical?
Based on a true story, Edie Bouvier Beale was an aunt of former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. She became a recluse and eccentric. Jacqueline and her sister Lee Radziwell had approached the Maysles to make a documentary about the Bouviers, but they found little of interest. But once the filmmakers discovered the black sheep of the family — in the form of Big Edie and daughter Little Edie — living in a decaying former mansion in East Hampton, their focus changed and they made their famous film.
The two former socialites’ decline began after Big Edie’s husband left her. Steeped in high society with some renowned suitors (rumored to be Joseph Kennedy Sr. and J. Paul Getty, among others), Little Edie danced, sang and tried her hand at modeling, was known as “Body Beautiful Beale,” and moved to New York.
But she lost her chance at a big break in show business when her mother called her home to care for her, fearing she’d be left in isolation. The rest of the story is about their mutual dependence and disagreements, the raccoons, the fleas and crazy numbers of feral cats camping in their crumbling house, declared a health hazard by Long Island authorities and enraging their wealthy neighbors with their blighted home.
It was a very long night at the Ahmanson, and the pacing of the play didn’t help. The set up and execution in the first act are sluggish, and in the second act, just when you think the energy’s finally going to pick up, it falls flat again.
On the other hand, even clocking in at around 2 1/2 hours Ruskin’s “A Raisin in the Sun” proves its timelessness with stellar performances from actors who are entirely believable in this realistic play from 1959.
The Younger family, headed by Lina (Mama) Younger (Starletta DuPois; I interviewed her here two weeks ago) is awaiting receipt of a life insurance claim check following her husband’s death. This one-bedroom apartment is where Mama, daughter Beneatha, son Walter Lee, his wife Ruth, and their son Travis all live in cramped, squalid conditions in Chicago.
Mama is set on buying a house with the money. Walter Lee wants to open a liquor store with his buddies, Beneatha, studying to be a doctor, is being courted by a rich, cultured man and a Nigerian student.
The themes explored here are still relevant. Beneatha wants to know about her African heritage, Walter Lee feels that as a black man, no one listens to what he wants and he’s marinating in frustration and rage, Mama wants to keep the family together and to give pregnant Ruth’s second child space to grow up in. They all dream of a better future.
When Mama realizes how badly Walter Lee wants to make something of himself, she gives in and hands over a large portion of the claim money. But he’s the victim of a scam. The money he was supposed to use as a down payment on the business and for Beneatha’s education are stolen by a con man.
Mama has put her share of the money down on a house in a white neighborhood, where they are not wanted. A representative of the neighborhood committee tries to persuade them not to move in by making an offer to buy the house back.
Walter Lee, a limousine driver fed up with being subservient to the rich white man he works for, redeems himself, proudly refusing to kowtow to the committee, surprising and pleasing his family.
In real life, playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s family moved into a white neighborhood and suffered the consequences of trying to integrate. Ordered to move by a lower court, they refused, and the case known as Hansberry v. Lee made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled that restrictive covenants were illegal.
A Civil Rights activist and avid supporter of the NAACP, Hansberry died too young. But her mark as the first African American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, and the success of the play for these past 60 years stand as a testament to her foresight.
This production does her proud. Direction by Tony Award nominee Lita Gaithers Owens is impeccable. Walter Lee played by Redaric Williams, Beneatha by Charlotte Williams, Ruth by Angelle Brooks, Travis by Jaden Martin and the supporting cast all do a terrific job on this classic play in this tiny space that makes a cramped home feel even more realistic.
Don’t let this production pass you by. It’s award-worthy and runs through Sept. 17, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Visit www.ruskingrouptheatre.com for affordable tickets. The Ruskin Group Theatre is located at 3000 Airport Ave., across from Barker Hangar.
Sarah A. Spitz spent her career as a producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica and produced freelance arts reports for NPR. She has also written features and reviews for various print and online publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.