BWW Reviews: Curious Theatre's CLYBOURNE PARK

By: Sep. 17, 2011
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Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is a soul-searching triumph for Curious Theatre Company. As a sequel (of sorts) to Lorraine Hansberry's seminal A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park explores the tricky territory of race relations, scape-goating, and gentrification. This thought-provoking show packs a punch and a laugh.

Act One, set in 1959 Chicago, deals with a couple selling their beloved home after their son, a troubled Korean War veteran, commits suicide on the upper floor. This incident, and the consequent decision to sell, serves as a catalyst for the story's main theme - white, middle-class Bev and Russ are selling their home to a black couple, which sends Bev and Russ's white, middle-class neighbors into a tizzy.

Act Two, set in 2009, was a little confusing at first. I had a hard time figuring out where we were in time and place, and I wanted to have some idea of what had happened in Bev and Russ's lovely home in the five decades since their leaving Clybourne Park. Act two presents the same home fifty years later. We have transitioned from black residents moving into an all-white neighborhood in 1959 to white residents moving into the now all-black Clybourne Park in 2009. While act one is all about denial and deflection, act two is all about confrontation. Racial tension is still very much alive; how it manifests looks and sounds quite different.

Dee Covington as grieving mother Bev reminded me of Edith Bunker at times, while her brooding, stoic husband Russ (played deftly by Erik Sandvold) offered a sharp contrast to Bev's busy-body, fretful personality. As the quintessential 1950s housewife, Bev's got it down when it comes to dealing with conflict; she is downright stealthy in her denial, deflection, and distraction. Both Covington and Sandvold did a marvelous job with their roles as conflicted parents trying to do the best thing in the midst of profound grief. Josh Hartwell as Karl/Steve had a case of "foot in mouth disease" for both acts, which was funny and touching at the same time. C. Kelly Leo as Betsy/Lindsey made a startling transformation from a deaf, pregnant wife in Act One to a hysterical homeowner in Act Two. ZZ Moor, Cris Davenport, and Andy Waldschmidt rounded out the cast, each offering deep, bold performances that spoke volumes about the respective times in which their characters lived.

This is one of the most elaborate set designs that I have seen Curious Theatre present, thanks to designer Susan Crabtree. It was a gorgeous set that filled every bit of the stage with a dining room, living room, large staircase, fireplace, high ceilings, and lots of doors. They even installed hardwood floors for a homier 1950s feel. Because of the drastic set change between eras, the 15-minute intermission is absolutely necessary. The transformation is downright shocking and, while the basic structure of the house and rooms still existed for the 2009 set, nothing else was there. Everything had been removed, right down to the paint on the walls (how'd they do that?!)

During Act One, I was surprised at the black couple's lack of outrage and rebuttal in the more heated moments - moments that often included overt racial slurs and stereotyped assertions. But then I realized I was thinking very much in present day terms and not how these individuals would have realistically responded in the 1950s - keep quiet and keep your head down. Despite Rosa Parks' brave actions four years prior and MLK's strides toward equality, in 1959 there was still the very real matter of survival -- literally. Act Two was like watching a train wreck that you could not turn away from and you hated to laugh at the offensive jokes, but the audience did laugh (perhaps as a means to relieve some of the tension the actors did such a good job of building?) It was also interesting to see the issue if race juxtaposed between two generational attitudes. This approach illustrates how far we've come, but also how far we still have to go when it comes to equality and equal access. In fact, social research continues to show that "redlining" (a type of racial profiling) remains prevalent in home loan and apartment-living applications, and has increased with all the debate surrounding immigration. Coercion and fear are powerful tools when it comes to oppressing marginalized groups. That said, I must admit that my favorite part of the entire show is the last scene, which I believe offers the overarching true theme of the play. The final scene shows Kenneth, Bev and Russ's son, writing a letter to his parents (possibly his suicide note?) and having a conversation with his mother. For me, this simple exchange illustrates what this show is really about: that we are all fighting battles, domestic and foreign, and we all are human, regardless of skin color or cultural / political differences. How much conflict and, by extension, senseless death could be avoided if we simply saw each other as human? This play is about a family changed by the senseless death of their child, but it's also about a nation changed by the senseless persecution of particular groups.

Director and founder of Curious Theatre, Chip Walton, is to be commended for such a wonderful show, a fantastic set, a strong and solid cast, and a touching, humorous script. If this is the first show of the season, I look forward to what is to come! Clybourne Park is showing until October 15th. For tickets or information, contact the box office at 303-623-0524 or visit them online at


PHOTO CREDIT:  Michael Ensminger

Erik Sandoval as Russ & Dee Covington as Bev

Chris Davenport as Albert & Z Z Moor as Francine


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