BWW Reviews: Tennessee Rep's CLYBOURNE PARK is Theater At Its Most Challenging
Growing up as a baby boomer in the South, you carry with you at least a modicum of guilt-regardless of whatever your upbringing actually may have been-about racism and the impact of one's skin color on the society in which you are raised. Here in the South, we're well aware of our history founded upon racist attitudes and built upon the backs of slaves, so we struggle with racism continually and it is never far from our minds-to the point, quite honestly, that we may have come much further in our consideration of the racist conundrum than our Yankee (old habits die hard) counterparts. And in these upwardly mobile times, there is a very good chance you might find yourself struggling anew with racial stereotypes and archetypes if you are among the pioneers of neighborhood gentrification.
So it should come as no surprise that Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park-the sharply written Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play that closed on Broadway only days before its debut at TPAC's Andrew Johnson Theatre as the 2012-13 season opener from Tennessee Repertory Theatre-would resonate so deeply with Nashville audiences. Although there's a tendency to think of Tennessee Rep's well-heeled audiences as vapid, vacuous yuppies (which comes with the realization that you are, indeed, included among that number), you must admit that they are concerned, involved individuals who realize that they are being indicted with every word and every scene set onto a page by a creative, imaginative playwright.
It goes without saying that after witnessing Norris's somehow complex, yet rather simplistic, comedy-drama unfold before them-as enacted by an amazing ensemble of Nashville actors under the direction of Rene Copeland, the woman who might very well be the best stage director to be found within the city limits-that they will continue the debate raised by the characters in Clybourne Park long after the figurative curtain has rung down on Gary Hoff's extraordinarily detailed set.
The realization that Norris' play will precipitate further consideration and conversations about the altogether alarming realities of racism and "tribal" territorialism will come as an after-thought. Initially, audiences are in thrall of the superb performances by the members of Copeland's ensemble of actors, each of whom shines in their respective roles and who provide the play's heart and soul. Clearly, Norris has done his part by creating a contemporary play that challenges convention and makes you feel uncomfortable enough to squirm in your seats when you recognize yourself among the people collected onstage. Using language that is at once both ridiculously beautiful and profanely crass, Norris has given voice to the frustrations of generations of people, helping to express the sometimes shocking selfishness that resides in each of us no matter how hard we try to hide it.
And to think that Norris has used a classic of the American theater as the springboard for his new play to grab hold of the collective consciousness of his audience is mind-blowingly convoluted and, quite frankly, brilliant. Using Lorraine Hansberry's timeless A Raisin in the Sun as inspiration, Norris comes calling at the theater with what at first seems a quaint, neo-traditional play that evokes the very best of American drama-then he takes an unexpected turn, propelling the play's action ahead by some 50 years to examine the very same issues offered up by Hansberry in her historic yet fictionalized treatise on events in her own life.
In Clybourne Park, Norris introduces us to Bev and Russ, a comfortable middle-class white couple who are packing up their belongings to move from their once tony inner-city Chicago neighborhood for a new home in the gracious and growing suburbs, with its promise of a five-minute commute and removal from a heartrending personal tragedy that becomes evident in the play's first act. As they pack up bric-a-brac and silver candlesticks with the aid of their dutiful maid Francine, the couple "entertains" a coterie of neighborhood habitués to arrive in a misguided attempt to convince them not to go through with the sale of the family home to outsiders.
As it becomes clear-and which in a plot device that everyone should know by now-that the new buyers are indeed Lena Younger and her family from Hansberry's earlier, equally heralded, drama, Clybourne Park takes on deeper meaning, its multi-hued shadings deepening into darker greys and blacks to draw sharper contrasts in the story being told onstage. While Norris' plot weaves the tale to great effect (only one character from Raisin makes an appearance in the new play), drawing upon Hansberry's original work for inspiration and an unshakeable foundation for Clybourne Park, it borders on the manipulative.
But thanks to Norris' deft handling of the situation, his pitch-perfect take on the characters and, especially, the language they use, it remains a brilliant stroke of dramatic theatricality. While he moves you from point A to point B and thereafter, he paints a vivid portrait that has tremendous impact upon his audience. The power of Norris' breathtaking script, sharply written and effectively drawn, comes upon you unawares, forcing you to consider your own involvement in the perpetuation of racist/sexist and societal stereotypes. In so doing, he shows the power of theater to transform and to illuminate the human condition. It's pretty heady stuff.
In another example of supreme stagecraft, Norris' script for Act Two features the same actors playing different roles and he deftly brings together the loose threads of the first stanza to create a beautifully sewn, if sometimes ugly and offensive, tapestry of family honor, pride of place and a shared heritage of distrust and unease. He also stipulates that no matter how much things change, they certainly seem to remain the same-a fact that indicts us, all of us regardless of our race or place in the social hierarchy, for our failure to learn from our past mistakes and failures. In short, we still have a long row to hoe before we truly find ourselves in a post-racial society. In this election year, Clybourne Park provides us with much food for thought, to the point that we could very easily gorge ourselves after curtain.
Copeland's attention to detail and her unerring skill for casting the right actor in the right role is at its zenith in her production of Clybourne Park which, coming so closely on the heels of the acclaimed Broadway production, presents its own set of obstacles to overcome. Yet, with the wealth of her years of experience and her total commitment to the project, Copeland and her creative team bring off a production that is visually stunning and emphatically acted.
It's a complete understatement to say that this production heralds yet another outstanding season from Tennessee Repertory Theatre, but that is exactly the feeling one has when considering the impact of Clybourne Park on theater audiences in Nashville.
Copeland's cast is headed by Derek Whittaker and Shelean Newman, cast in the pivotal roles of Russ and Bev, the beleaguered middle-class couple whose grief is palpable in Act One. Whittaker's reading of Russ is heartbreakingly real-almost too much so-and when he rages at those hectoring him to back out of the real estate deal with the unseen Youngers, he packs a dramatic wallop that attests to his skill and focus. Newman presents a Bev who seems almost ostrich-like in her world view, constantly trying to bury her head in the sand, yet she walks a very fine line in creating her onstage characterization. In so doing, Newman gives Bev a more confident footing in spite of her seemingly sunny view of the world. In Act Two, Whittaker is given far less responsibility, which also gives him the opportunity to display his versatility, while Newman ideally embodies the upwardly mobile yuppie lawyer's Type A personality.
Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva, as the family domestic in Act One, plays her role with an cringe-worthy sense of subservience that is indicative of the play's time and place, but in Act Two she is given full rein to express the outspoken views of her contemporary character. Whitcomb-Oliva smartly underplays both roles-it is clear that Francine is not a servant of the Stepin Fetchit ilk and that Lena is not just some strident angry black woman-and instead she creates a performance that is completely genuine and affecting. She is paired with the capable Tony Morton as her husband in both acts and he delivers the goods with aplomb. Morton's Albert in Act One may at first seem eager-to-please and a tad obsequious at first, it becomes clear that he has a backbone. And in the second act, Morton's Kevin proves the intellectual equal of anyone in the room.
As Karl Linder, the only character that appears in both A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park, Nate Eppler is fine as the unctuous representative of the whites-only neighborhood association, dripping with earnestness and superiority, but it's his Act Two character (the well-heeled yuppie hoping to tear down the house and replace it with a towering temple to bad taste and excess) that allows him to shine. With a burgeoning reputation as the most talented writer for the stage to be found in our midst, Clybourne Park gives Eppler the opportunity to prove to us once again what a very fine actor he is. He is ably matched onstage with Shannon Hoppe who plays his wife in both acts, and each of her characters is superbly acted as Hoppe shows off her heretofore untapped range with a ferociously acted performance.
Eric Pasto-Crosby gives yet another seamless performance as Act One's neighborhood priest Jim and as the self-absorbed lawyer in the second act. Pasto-Crosby excels in characters in which he is able to lose himself and when he does it, he never lets you see him sweat, so completely free of stagey artifice is his performance.
Finally, Steve Parnell makes his Tennessee Rep debut in the very brief, but pivotal, role of Kenneth, the son of Bev and Russ, whose role in the story continues to reverberate some 50 years after his offscreen actions set the plot on its course. With less than 10 minutes onstage, Parnell proves an important part of Copeland's ensemble of actors.
Copeland's skillful direction of Norris' script is vital to the show's overall success and its reception by the audience and it is flawless. Hoff's gorgeous set, which so effectively depicts a Craftsman-inspired home in Chicago, is the play's uncredited character, providing the very real basis for everything that goes on in and around it, and Phillip Franck's atmospheric lighting helps to focus one's attention on the home's once-opulent design and the decaying edifice it has become in Act Two. TrisH Clark's costume design adds greatly to establishing who the people in the play are throughout its two stanzas, while Paul Carrol Binkley's sound design provides an auditory entrée into the story playing out before you.
- Clybourne Park. By Bruce Norris. Directed by Rene Copeland. Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre at Andrew Johnson Theatre, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through September 22. For details, go to www.TennesseeRep.org; for reservations, call (615) 782-4040.