Review: CLYBOURNE PARK at Dirt Dogs Theatre Co.

Despite any setbacks, the show is a marvel to witness

By: Jun. 06, 2022
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Review: CLYBOURNE PARK at Dirt Dogs Theatre Co. Sometimes with live theater things go very wrong, and the production can be a mighty struggle and a test of faith. The Dirt Dogs company has tackled CLYBOURNE PARK, and found out quickly how many things can work against you when producing a show. Cast members fought through COVID cases, one had to drop out days before opening, and the run was pushed back a week to compensate. When I saw the show on their opening night it was still roughshod and ragged with one actress having to be on book, but somehow the magic of the script and the talent of the company carried the piece across the finish line with grace and beauty. The Japanese embrace an aesthetic called wabi-sabi where they celebrate an imperfect item by adding gold to fill in any cracks. The Dirt Dogs production of CLYBOURNE PARK may well be the embodiment of that idea, a piece to celebrate even with visible cracks. And something tells me playwright Bruce Norris would appreciate imperfections since his 2010 script was meant to show flaws without flinching.

CLYBOURNE PARK is a spiritual prequel and sequel to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play A RAISIN IN THE SUN. In Act I set in 1959 the play tells the story of a white family in mourning who decide to sell their house in a middle class neighborhood to escape the pain of haunting memories. The neighbors are having a fit because the buyers are a black family, and they fear what will happen to the neighborhood once it diversifies. This leads to a confrontation and a discussion of what that means, and in short order the conversation drifts into a racist diatribe and an "us versus them" mentality. The second half set five decades later shows a white couple moving into the same house after the community has become black. They want to tear down the structure and build a mansion that will stand fifteen feet higher than their neighbors. They are forced to negotiate with representatives from the neighborhood who fear what that means for their community. The discussions move from aesthetics to blatant racism which ignite fiery exchanges between the two parties. It's a script that won a Tony award for Best Play in 2012, and ten years later still has much to say to audiences about territorialism and racism.

Dirt Dogs drafted theatrical impresario Ron Jones to direct this production, and it was a wise move. Jones has worked extensively with theaters that celebrate cultural diversity, and his pedigree lends itself perfectly to this script. He's no stranger to doing "whatever it takes" to get a production across a finish line despite sudden hurdles. Yet what he does best is orchestrate the impossibly complex dialogue from Bruce Norris, and stages this show beautifully with blocking and guidance that elevate everything from a physical perspective. His remarkable deft hand is recognizable, and the show benefits from it.

The cast carries every moment well, and their commitment bleeds through each performance. Malinda Beckham provides a heart-breaking portrait of a mother in the 50s act, and then turns in one of the funniest sketches of a real estate lawyer in the current day portion. She captures something in both eras that define what the play contrasts. In one act you ache for her optimism that things will improve, and then in the next she blasts everything with a cynicism that is tragically hilarious. Trevor Cone plays her bitter spouse in the first act. We feel his anger and pain as he delivers a powerhouse performance of a man driven to a place beyond caring about his own grief. In the second act he gets to be simply goofy as a construction worker who makes a surprising discovery. He's an expert with both ire and comedy.

In contrast we have Blake Weir and Amanda Marie Parker who play couples who spiritually remain the same in both acts. In the first portion Blake plays a minor character from A RAISIN IN THE SUN who tries to bribe a black family into not moving into his neighborhood. Here we see him badgering the current occupants to stay put for the sake of the greater good. The second act he plays an out of touch typical white guy who finds humor in racist jokes, and one who refuses to see his own privilege and superiority complex. Weir disappears into each role unapologetically, and he provokes and disturbs in equal doses. Amanda Marie Parker in turn plays the innocent deaf wife in the first part, and then gets to sink her teeth into a wrong-headed suburban mom who thinks she is far more progressive than she is. Both actors do great work without ever pausing or flinching to show imperfections. They don't hold back, and willingly dive into the murk set before them.

Wesley Whitson gets to showcase a humble priest and a flashy gay real estate lawyer which show off his range brilliantly. He is earnest and sweet as the clergyman, and then acidic and cutting in the latter half. Derrick Brent II plays a black husband in both parts, and he easily embodies both anger and restraint when confronted with the blatant injustice and stereotyping. And rounding out the cast is Crystal Rae who I saw play her part after merely two days of scant rehearsal. She plays the maid in act one, and then becomes the advocate for her community in the second stretch. Despite being on book, I was moved by her performances in both characters. She has a sweetness that comes across initially, but also a wry witty strength showcased later. Her performance was not hindered other than occasionally having to look down for reassurance in a script. It is truly watching someone embody grace under pressure, and she has much to take pride in.

Technically CLYBOURNE PARK is a miracle, and the physical aspects and design work continue the Dirt Dogs reputation for excellence in production work. Mark A. Lewis delivers an impressive set design that translates to one of the best looking spaces I have seen in any theater professional or otherwise. Travis Ammons provides excellent sound cues, and helps set the scene with music fitting each era as an overture to each act. Lights by Kris Phelps are also evocative and well executed. You couldn't ask for a better tech crew than this one.

Despite an onslaught of tragedies and mishaps, the Dirt Dogs production of CLYBOURNE PARK is an engaging night of theater. It's a chance to revel in a brilliant script, to watch an immensely talented group of actors, and to witness technical expertise. They found grace and beauty in the face of a myriad of obstacles. The audience gave the company a well-deserved standing ovation on their opening to celebrate their triumph over adversity. In the end they still managed to produce a show that asks the hard questions, never flinches from the truth, and captures perfectly what it means to be human. Imperfections be damned.

CLYBOURNE PARK runs through June 11th at the MATCH complex in Midtown. The company is not enforcing any COVID protocols, and masking is optional. The show runs two hours and includes a fifteen minute intermission.


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