BWW Reviews: CLYBOURNE PARK Proves Razor Sharp at Playhouse on the Square
My belated mother once said, "Your house is your house and your life is your life, and they really are two separate things." . . . But are they? . . . Playwright Bruce Norris explores this question in Clybourne Park a provocative play set in an ordinary house in a fictional Chicago suburb.Written as an artistic response to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama, A Raisin in the Sun, this two-act play has garnered The 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, The Olivier Award and The Evening Standard Award. The show closed on Broadway in September of 2012 and is now making its debut on regional stages.
So, how must a director in a city filled with racial tension and economic disparity approach the regional premiere of an explosive drama about race and class?
Fearlessly. . . and Stephen Hancock does just that!
This expertly-staged production is like a fireworks display with crackerjack chemistry and brilliant ballistics; every volley timed, charged and fused to unfold for best effect. But unlike those pyrotechnics that lull us into dreamy "ooohs" and "aaahhs," Clybourne Park shakes us up with ferocious wit, incendiary language, and scathing insights as we are alternately appalled, amused, and astonished by the twists, turns and raw humanity in this story. We gasp. We squirm. We laugh . . . and laugh . . . and laugh.
Act I takes place in 1959 when a grieving middle-aged white couple, Bev (Mary Buchignani) and Russ (Michael Gravois) are packing up to move with the help of their black maid, Francine (Claire Kolheim). When a wishy-washy minister, Jim (Christoper Joel Onken) drops in, we find out their son had been driven to suicide after returning from the Korean War. The fraught, ensuing conversation is cut short when Francine's husband, Albert (Jeramie L. Simmons) comes to pick her up. But before Albert and Francine can leave, another white middle-aged couple, talkative Karl (John Maness) and his deaf, pregnant wife, Betsey (Meredith Julian) show up. When Karl can no longer contain his outrage about Bev and Russ having sold their home to "a colored couple," the pretense of a social visit is dropped and all hell breaks loose.
Act II revisits the same location in the year 2009 with all seven actors playing entirely different characters. The scene opens with six people in the now-dilapidated house going over the details of a real estate contract. Steve (John Maness) and his pregnant wife, Lindsey, (Meredith Julian) have hired an aggressive-yet-bubbly attorney, Kathy (Mary Buchignani). An affluent black couple with sentimental ties to the property, Kevin (Jeramie L. Simmons) and Lena (Claire Kolheim) are represented by their lawyer, Tom (Christoper Joel Onken). Initially they tiptoe through tense negotiations over maintaining the architectural integrity of the home. A constant barrage of cell-phone interruptions and the weight of obligatory political correctness starts to irritate all of them. Once Steve starts to challenge Lena's word choices, all undercurrents of tension bubble to the surface and hell breaks loose again. They wind up in an unrestrained argument, expressing more mutual contempt than their 1950's counterparts would have dared. At the height of the action, construction worker, Dan (Michael Gravois) carries in something he dug up in the back yard and the focus shifts again.
At odd moments Act II is like glimpsing at a funhouse mirror. The reflection may be farcical and distorted, but it's familiar just the same. When the final curtain falls, we wonder whether fifty years represents as much meaningful social progress as we'd thought.
Clybourne Park is a rich show with textured subtleties, sweeping emotional arcs, heavily overlapping dialogue and loaded words. Across the board, the actors brought out the best in this critically revered material. In addition to their well-developed, consistent characterizations, their relationships--particularly the dynamic between each of the couples--was very believable. These are some of Memphis' best actors, and when the lights come up, they become midwesterners through and through.
Of course, even the best shows have challenges. Looking through my mental magnifying glass, as this job requires, I spotted three minor things that might have been brought down a notch for better effect: Bev or Kathy's (Mary Buchignani') accent is more pronounced and sounds more "Northern Great Lakes Region" than the rest of the cast. Plausible for Bev's character, but not so much for Kathy's. Construction worker, Dan (Michael Gravois) seems at moments to be channeling Pat Harrington's overly-broad "Schneider" from the 1970's CBS sitcom One Day at a Time. Betsey and Lena's (Claire Kolheim) pregnant waddle often feels deliberate instead of organic. Minutae aside, this is a spectacular show!
I sailed through two hours and ten minutes completely engrossed, not one thought of the outside world crossing my mind. The final curtain came too soon. If Live Theatre had a "replay" button, I'd have been tempted hit it and watch the whole thing again.
Clybourne Park runs through October 13th at Playhouse on the Square 66 South Cooper Street.
For reservations call: (901) 726-4656 or visit their website at playhouseonthesquare.org
Photos by: Katharine Stubblefield