A Raisin in the Sun. This fifty-year-old play remains astonishingly relevant. The Younger family — grandmother Lena, son Walter Lee and twenty-year-old daughter Beneatha, as well as Walter Lee's wife, Ruth, and young son Travis — live in a roach-infested Chicago apartment with a down-the-hall bathroom. Travis sleeps on the couch; Ruth frets at her closet-sized kitchen; Lena tends a spindly, sunlight-deprived plant and dreams of owning a small house and a patch of dirt. As the play opens, Lena is about to receive a $10,000 insurance payment for the death of her husband, and she wants to spend it on a new home and to send Beneatha to medical school. But Walter Lee, frustrated with his job as a chauffeur and the family's poverty — both Lena and Ruth work as domestics — is entertaining fantasies of wealth and independence. He believes he can achieve them by investing in a liquor store with a couple of drinking buddies. This bald plot outline does no justice to the subtle skein of interactions in the play, the political and artistic questioning, the humor and despair, the emotional realities that Lorraine Hansberry lays bare. Under the direction of Israel Hicks, this Denver Center production becomes a glowing, moving tapestry illuminating both its own time period and ours. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 31, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 15.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. For the kids who compete in them, spelling bees are a very big deal. They represent an arena where poor kids, rural kids and the kids of immigrants can find identity and pride; winning requires discipline, stamina, nerves and a profound attention to detail. But bees are also utterly trivial. They're not even good predictors of intellect. Being a terrific speller may correlate with serious intellectual or creative power, but it usually doesn't. The authors of this quirky musical are aware of both the importance of bees and their essential silliness. Putnam County provides lots of laugh-out-loud moments; a few silly, slightly dirty puns; and a group of kid characters we can care about. Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through November 7, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com. Reviewed October 1.
A Raisin in the Sun
The Voysey Inheritance. When he wrote The Voysey Inheritance over a hundred years ago, Harley Granville-Barker intended to show the rot beneath the politely conventional exterior of Edwardian society. The plot concerns a solicitor who uses his clients' funds to enrich himself and his family while managing to keep up with interest payments and avoid suspicion. In short, he's running a Ponzi scheme worthy of Bernie Madoff. Only a few years before the current financial collapse, David Mamet — whose own plays often feature both financial matters and groups of people behaving badly — rescued this work from semi-oblivion and tightened it. Despite his ministrations, The Voysey Inheritance still makes for a very wordy evening. And this production lacks the specificity and precision that might help make it shine. Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through October 24, Space Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org. Reviewed October 8.
Yankee Tavern. Adam, a young man working in what used to be his father's bar, is arguing with his fiancée, Janet, because the names he provided for her save-the-date notices were fictitious, and she's furious. Adam's father committed suicide in this ghostly place — or rather, we think it was suicide, because nothing in Steven Dietz's Yankee Tavern is for sure. The bar is situated on the ground floor of a hotel peopled with ghosts. And also one live guest: crazy Ray, a conspiracy theorist who carries a moon rock in his pocket, hates Starbucks and believes that the government was complicit in the events of 9/11. Adam, under the guidance of a sexy brilliant professor with whom he may or may not have had an affair, wrote a doctoral thesis debunking this idea. And then there's the silent man at the end of the bar who has ordered two Rolling Rocks — one for himself, one for the invisible companion who died on 9/11. This man appears to have inside knowledge, and he's a lot more worrisome than garrulous Ray. Pretty soon the bar is filled with a murky sense of menace, and we seem to be engrossed in a tense, brilliantly plotted noir thriller. Except that it isn't. You just can't make all the odd comments and events of Yankee Tavern cohere into a narrative. Dietz has undercut Ray's mind games only to reveal that the entire damn play is his own mind game. Adam, Janet, Ray and Palmer aren't real people; they're figures on a shape-changing Alice in Wonderland chessboard. This kind of nonsensical sense makes for a somewhat dizzying evening, but in the end, a game is still just a game, and you leave the theater feeling as if you've crammed yourself with air. Presented by Curious Theatre through October 24, 1080 Acoma, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org.