But change is always scary, especially when you don’t initiate it. And when it hits close to home—literally, as in “just down the block”—a body is likely to see it as a threat, not an opportunity.
Set in the living room of a house in the “Bungalow Belt” of modest single-family homes built in the early years of the 20th century around Chicago’s urban core, Bruce Norris’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize–winning comedy/drama “Clybourne Park” shows us, in two beautifully constructed and literate acts, what happens when the house down the block changes hands and the new owners are met with hostility and suspicion instead of the Welcome Wagon.
In the first act it’s 1959 and the threat is from a black family—perhaps the same one described in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic “Raisin in the Sun” (a local production of which closed the same weekend this show opened)—moving into an all-white neighborhood. In the second act it’s 2009, the mostly black neighborhood is recovering from years of drugs and crime, and the problem is a clueless white couple that wants to tear down the house and replace it with a larger one, which is seen as a threat to the neighborhood’s integrity. In both acts an initially cordial atmosphere slowly deteriorates into shouting matches and the threat of physical violence over centuries of social, political, and racial fault lines. Characters talk to each other but rarely listen. The distorting prism of fear makes it impossible for them to even see each other clearly.
As the play opens, Russ (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Bev (Nancy Bell) are packing up in preparation for moving day. The dialog is light-hearted banter about the origins of Neapolitan ice cream that could have been lifted from an episode of “Ozzie and Harriet”. But all is not what it seems. Russ tells Pastor Jim (Eric Gilde) that he’s moving to get a bigger office and have shorter commute, but we soon learn that it’s really because the house has been darkened by tragedy and Russ can’t stand the memories. The tension escalates when Russ’s fellow Rotarian Karl (Michael James Reed) arrives with his pregnant deaf wife Betsy (Shanara Gabrielle) to inform Russ that the family buying the house (whom Russ has never met) is black and that the neighborhood is “concerned”. When Karl drags the family’s black maid Francine (Tanesha Gary) and her husband Albert (Chauncy Thomas) into the argument by clumsily trying to get them to admit they wouldn’t be comfortable in an all-white community, things quickly get ugly. By curtain time, we’ve moved from “Ozzie and Harriet” to Sam Shepard territory.
As the second act begins, fifty years have passed and they have not been kind to the house. Some of the original mill work is gone, the wooden bannister to the second floor has been replaced with a cheap metal monstrosity, and there’s gang graffiti on the walls and trash in the corners. Construction of some sort is obviously going on, though. Seated on folding chairs, boxes, and upended tubs are the new owners Steve and his pregnant wife Lindsey (Mr. Reed and Ms. Gabrielle), their lawyer Kathy (Ms. Bell), homeowner association members Lena and Kevin (Ms. Gary and Mr. Thomas), and their lawyer Tom (Mr. Gilde). It’s hot, they’re tired, Tom has to leave in 45 minutes, and they’re trying to work their way through a convoluted legal document explaining exactly how Steve and Lindsey will have to modify their new home plans to meet the community’s architectural standards. Repeating a pattern established in the first act, they’re constantly interrupted by phone calls and their own conversational digressions, largely on variations of the same topics from that act. And then there’s the matter of that trunk construction foreman Dan (Mr. Phillips) has found buried in the back yard.
Once again, civility deteriorates into a threat of violence, with dialog and even some blocking mirroring the first act. Once again, everything comes to a halt—with no real resolution—when the local church clock strikes four and Mr. Glide’s character has to leave. Left alone, Dan opens the trunk, and past and present merge in a sad epilogue.
If I have been a bit vague about some aspects of the plot it’s because I want to avoid spoilers. Some of the show’s impact rests on revelations. Mostly, though, it comes from the crackling, literate dialog, credible characters, and beautifully balanced construction of the script. The parallels between the first and second acts are just subtle enough to drive home the ironic repetition of history without belaboring the point. There are no real villains here (although Karl comes close) and no real heroes either; just ordinary folks trying and failing to deal with their fears. If you’re looking for a dramatic explanation of why our nation is so fiercely divided, you’ll find one in “Clybourne Park”.
The show’s ensemble cast is just flawless. Mr. Phillips radiates depression as Russ and slovenly self-assurance as Dan. Ms. Bell’s conflicted Bev strongly contrasts w how to write a essay ith her driven Kathy. Ms. Gary’s Francine and Lena are two contrasting sides of the same self-assured coin while Mr. Thomas’s Albert and Kevin are both a bit volatile, but in different ways. Both Karl and Steve are conversationally tone deaf but Mr. Reed makes them obviously distinct characters. Ms. Gabrielle is as utterly credible as the deaf Betsy in the first act as she is in the second act as Lindsey who, while not actually deaf, doesn’t seem to really listen much. Mr. Gilde has perhaps the biggest acting challenge since Jim and Tom aren’t all that different, but he pulls it off.
Director Timothy Near has blocked and paced the show with a keen eye and ear for the script’s parallel structure, and scenic designer Scott C. Neale’s set is probably the most elaborate and realistic piece of work I’ve ever seen in the studio space. It’s beautifully lit by Ann G. Wrightson. Tom Haverkamp’s sound design nicely sets up the contrasting time frames of the two acts.
I just can’t praise this script and the Rep’s splendid production of it highly enough. It’s entertaining, thought provoking, and complex enough to encourage repeated viewing. The requirement for a functioning staircase might make it a stretch for some smaller companies, but I’d be surprised if “Clybourne Park” didn’t start showing up in the seasons of smaller theatre groups in the future.
“Clybourne Park” runs through November 18th and if the sold-out house we saw is any indication, tickets are going fast. Get them while you can. For more information: repstl.org or call 314-968-4925.