BWW Reviews: Good Theater's CLYBOURNE PARK Takes Incisive Aim at Racism
Portland's (Maine) Good Theater opened its 2013-2014 season with an incisive production of Bruce Norris' 2011 Pultizer Prize winning drama, Clybourne Park. The play, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, explores the issues of subtle, yet pervasive racism in a Chicago neighborhood, first in 1959 and then in 2009. That the characters in each half of the drama have different names and ostensibly different experiences is a bitter illusion. History not only repeats itself, albeit it in a more understated and sophisticated way, but it also painfully demonstrates that prejudice dies hard; even time, education, and improving economics do not erase deeply ingrained fears and intolerance.
Norris' genius for characterization gives the play its punch. In Act I, borrowing the minor Hansberry character Karl Linder, he surrounds the bigoted fifties neighborhood spokesman with a panoply of insightfully conceived and pointedly delineated other roles: the submissive, dreamy housewife Bev; her suburban husband Russ - both subliminally angry and devastated by the suicide of their son; the naïve minister Jim, whose platitudes shield him and his flock from confronting the real issues; Francine, the family maid, and her obliging husband, Albert, tiptoeing their way through a white world; and Linder, the self-righteous, myopic bigot and his pregnant wife Betsy, whose literal deafness is a fitting corollary to her husband's metaphorical blindness.
In Act II these characters morph into 21st century likenesses of their former selves. Economic and social issues are reversed, and masks are exchanged, but the inner personal realities persist. Kathy and Tom are the exasperated, politically correct lawyers; Steve and Lindsey the yuppie couple seeking to snap up property in a rapidly gentrifying urban neighborhood; Lena and Kevin, the upwardly mobile African-American descendants of the Act I purchasers of the house, seeking to preserve the privileges for which their ancestors fought so hard; and the plainspoken contractor Dan who unwittingly uncovers the house's painful past.
Inevitably, these people clash, and the ensuing exchanges demonstrate Norris' brilliance for pitch-perfect dialogue that is at once funny and profane, biting and slyly ironic. One laughs uncomfortably to hear well-meaning excuses and euphemisms frequently encountered today. Norris' ear for the banal and the searing surprises, even assaults the audience; he is a master at parry, thrust, and skewer - hypocrisy and self-delusion his targets.
Lastly, the house, itself, is a character in the play - the hard won aspiration of the African-American buyers in the first act and the crumbling wreck over which the two couples argue in the second, now a vicxtim of the all-too-familiar cycle of urban decline and subsequent gentrification. But the house is also a character because it harbors its own tragic history, which, like the persistent racial attitudes of the play, continues to haunt.
Brian P. Allen's direction brings a keen, almost musical ear for the play's rhythmic shifts. If one wonders at the slow pace of the opening scene, one quickly comes to understand the effectiveness of the strategy as the play builds to its blistering crescendo.
The unit set by Stephen Underwood is a model of economy and emotiveness; it transforms itself from neat, modest fifties home into a 2009 wreck awaiting razing. Justin Cote's costume design reinforces the half-century span of the play, and Ian Dolin's lighting design is solidly functional.
The seven-person ensemble is brilliant. Stephen Underwood is an appropriately mild-mannered Dan, who harbors a maelstrom of grief and then the actor morphs into the amusingly extroverted, bumbling handyman, Dan. Amy Roche is bewildered and well meaning as Bev in Act I, while as the attorney Kathy in Act II, she demonstrates an upscale side of the same conformist perspective. Noelle LuSane creates a fine contrast as the restrained, pointedly polite Francine in Act I and then the assertive Lena, who hurls some of the play's most acerbic barbs with honey-coated marksmanship in Act II. As both characters' husbands, Bari Robinson captures Albert's and Kevin's nimbleness of wit and spirit - survival skills in both eras. Mark Rubin is appropriately obtuse and sanctimonious as Karl Linder and then explosive and belligerent as Steve. Sally Wood turns in an hilarious performance as the deaf Betsy and soars in the second act as Lindsey, who travels from conciliation to hysterical outburst as her and her husband's identities and tenets are challenged. Lucas O'Neil astutely reveals the similarities first in the status quo minister and later in the defensively gay lawyer, Tom.
The dual roles which the actors play serve not only to showcase the cast's dramatic skills, but also serve as a clever metaphor for the entire drama. For as the Clybourne Park house transforms itself over the fifty-year span, so, too, do its inhabitants, neighbors, and community. But, as Norris so poignantly demonstrates, that change is superficial rather than essential. Clybourne Park is a formidable tale of ingrained prejudice and racism which, even when it appears to be involuntary, is, nonetheless insidious.
Clybourne Park runs until October 27, 2013 at The Good Theater, 76 Congress Street, Portland, ME; tickets and oinformation at 207-885-5883 or www.goodtheater.com