WILLIAMSTOWN — As with “Death of a Salesman’’ and “A Streetcar Named Desire’’ and a handful of other theatrical landmarks, Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun’’ has been canonical for so long that it can be hard to experience it afresh and easy to forget what a great play it is.
But reminders of its undimmed power come rushing at you thick and fast in Robert O’Hara’s outstanding revival at Williamstown Theatre Festival, led by S. Epatha Merkerson’s portrayal of Lena Younger, the matriarch of an African-American family searching for a better life but divided on what that means.
When “A Raisin in the Sun’’ premiered in 1959, making Hansberry the first black female author to have a play produced on Broadway, she was only 28 years old. Just six years later, she was dead of cancer. Questions of what Hansberry might have accomplished if she’d had more time remain haunting; what she did accomplish during her too-brief sojourn on earth remains inspiring.
Watching “Raisin’’ at Williamstown, one is struck by how brilliantly Hansberry blended specificity and universality, constructing a durably engrossing portrait of a vividly particularized family whose fate we care about while also touching some of the deepest social-historical chords of the collective African-American experience — aspects of which are still very much pertinent today.
Director O’Hara, who is also a prominent playwright, is not exactly known for hewing to naturalism. He helmed “Slave Play’’ off-Broadway earlier this year and is the author of such provocative works as “Bootycandy,’’ presented at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company in 2016, and “Barbecue,’’ produced at Lyric Stage Company of Boston in 2017.
O’Hara deviates from traditional presentations of “A Raisin in the Sun’’ by, for instance, incorporating cross-talk into a few scenes and adding a meta-theatrical touch to one of the play’s more famous speeches in a way that implicates the present-day audience. One of O’Hara’s directorial innovations — involving the periodic appearance of a silent, spectral figure whose identity I will not disclose but whom those familiar with the play can probably guess — is not new to anyone who saw Liesl Tommy employ a similar device in her 2013 production of “Raisin’’ at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company.
But O’Hara respects the inherent potency of the play throughout his production, and the jolting gut-punch of a denouement he has devised feels true to Hansberry’s fundamental vision.
Set on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1950s, in a weary-looking tenement apartment with peeling wallpaper (the set is by Clint Ramos), “Raisin’’ principally revolves around four members of the Younger family, who find themselves at a crossroads, faced with a momentous decision.
They are: recently widowed Lena (Merkerson), who does domestic work for a meager living; her restless son, Walter Lee Younger (Francois Battiste), a chauffeur nearly choking on his thwarted ambition; daughter Beneatha (Nikiya Mathis), a brainy and free-spirited college student with her eye on a medical career; and Walter’s pragmatic wife, Ruth (Mandi Masden), also a domestic worker, who has just discovered she is pregnant. (Walter Lee and Ruth already have a young son, Travis, played by Owen Tabaka.)
Following the death of her husband, Big Walter, Lena is about to receive a $10,000 life insurance payment that she intends to use to buy a house for the family. Walter Lee, however, sees the money as his chance open a liquor store with a couple of partners and finally realize his dream of becoming an independent entrepreneur.
As the struggle between mother and son plays out, the scope of “Raisin’’ expands beyond one family’s dispute to encompass broader questions of racial identity, social mobility, assimilation, class distinctions, cultural authenticity, and heritage, both familial and national. Beneatha is being courted by the wealthy George Murchison (Kyle Beltran) and by a Nigerian student who seems like her true soulmate, Joseph Asagai (Joshua Echebiri). Naked racism rears its head when Karl Lindner (Joe Goldammer), a leader of the neighborhood association in the white area the Y0ungers plan to move to, tries to buy them out.
Merkerson, a marvelously subtle actress who shone two summers ago at Williamstown in “The Roommate’’ and is best-known for playing Lieutenant Anita Van Buren on NBC’s “Law & Order, incisively captures not just Lena’s resolve in pursuing what she believes is the best course for her family but also a mother’s heartache at the rift within the family caused by her decision. She shows us other cracks in Lena’s stoicism, too; when Ruth refers to their apartment as a “rat trap,’’ Merkerson allows a small flicker of pain and wounded pride to cross Lena’s face.
Battiste’s Walter Lee is the compelling embodiment of a man who is straining against — and determined to overcome — not just his own individual circumstances but also the weight of history’s stacked deck. Masden is exceptional at communicating the depths of Ruth’s yearning to be free of both the apartment and the hemmed-in existence it represents. As for Mathis’s Beneatha, a character Hansberry based on her younger self, there is always a sense that, even as she tries on different identities, the student’s ultimate choices will matter greatly. “A Raisin in the Sun’’ matters greatly, too, and always will.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN
Play by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Robert O’Hara
Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival. At ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Main Stage, Williamstown. Through July 13. Tickets $60-$75. 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin