Dignity - its price, cost, and value - emerges as such a central theme in the Arden Theatre's new production of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play

A Raisin in the Sun

that there's no way the experience is just about repressed African American life in 1950s Chicago.

The play addresses current racial issues as much as those in its own time - along with the perspective anyone needs for equilibrium in a money-obsessed world.

First, though, one must settle into the particular landscape created with unassuming (and unassailable) authority by director Walter Dallas. With its operatic emotions and psychological hairpin turns, the play has attracted generations of charismatic actors, giving Shakespearean weight to this story of hope and devastation when a sorely needed financial windfall dissolves in a bad business deal.

Dallas has a slightly different message: Though Hansberry's eloquent dialogue suggests that this family is extraordinary, the casting choices seem slanted toward "just folks," though folks with particularly good senses of humor. These characters are us in one way or another, especially matriarch Lena, played by Joilet F. Harris. Looking less-than-statuesque with extra costume padding, she hardly exudes wisdom, so when she speaks it, the effect is all the more arresting.

As her son Walter Lee, actor U.R.'s movie-star charisma gives his character far to fall when the deal-gone-bad has him curled in a fetal position on his living room floor. As his long-suffering wife, Ruth, Nikki E. Walker conveys the household's emotional and financial precariousness, while Jaleesa Capri simply has bundles of fun as the pretentious, upwardly mobile Beneatha.

A special word for Kash Goins, who plays Bobo, Act II's bearer of bad news: He hits a terrifyingly high emotional pitch with masses of tears and saliva that tells you this is updated Greek tragedy.

Dallas dedicates the production to the late Lloyd Richards, first to direct Raisin and many August Wilson plays years later. Contrasting the writers is revealing, Wilson's mystical reality, Hansberry's succinct elegance and rock-solid construction - complementary twin peaks of African American theater.

A Raisin in the Sun

Through April 21 at the

Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2d St.

Tickets: $15-$48. 215-922-1122


Contact David Patrick Stearns

at dstearns@phillynews.com