It has been a long time since I’ve seen such a powerful, provocative new play as Bruce Norris’ 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning “Clybourne Park.”
Written in response to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” which Trinity did a couple of years ago, “Clybourne Park” takes place in 1959 (Act I) and in 2009 (Act II). The actors play different roles in each act, while the setting is the same house.
The story is a clever tale of race and real estate, bringing a modern twist to the “not in my neighborhood” school of thought. Brilliantly written and acted, “Clybourne Park” grabs you in the opening moments and never lets go.
It is funny, poignant, incisive and ranges in emotion from mean-spirited to condescending to hypocritical to crude to poignant. The play opens with “small talk” between husband and wife Russ and Bev. They have sold their house in a white Chicago suburb to a “negro” family (“Or do we call them colored?”). The house holds the horrible memory of their son who came home from Korea and committed suicide in the attic. Both parents and the neighbors are dealing with the tragedy in a variety of ways.
The local clergyman (Tommy Dickey) tries to talk them out of the sale. A neighbor (Mauro Hantman) and his deaf wife (Rachel Warren) also try to stop the sale, concerned about neighborhood housing values. An interesting note: Hautman played the same character in Trinity’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” right down to some of the same lines.) The group involves the black housekeeper (Mia Ellis) and her husband (Joe Wilson Jr.) in the discussion, which doesn’t go very well.
Russ finally reaches his breaking point and kicks everyone out. That’s what happens on the surface.
Playwright Norris, director Brian Mertes and the actors reach deeply inside the characters to bring out not only the dark humor of the situation but the underlying prejudices and ugliness. It is amazing how humor can be found in the situation, from the innocence of a loosely formed remark to a well-meaning Bev shouting at the deaf Betsy. You almost feel guilty laughing. But you do.
This is a true ensemble piece, with every actor having his or her moment, but I must single out the two veterans, Timothy Crowe and Anne Scurria. Crowe’s Russ brings out the anger and frustration of a man who has held in his feelings much too long and has deep contempt for his insensitive neighbors. Watch him as he reacts to every person around him. Scurria is the most innocent of the group. There appears to be not a mean bone in her body, even though she doesn’t always know how to express herself.
After intermission, we return to the same house. Eugene Lee has created a simple wooden platform with clutter that is removed to a dumpster during the break. (You may wish to remain in your seat and watch the crew transform the stage.
Now we have the actors playing different characters, with some interesting relationships to the ones in Act I. The neighborhood has evolved from all-white to all-black, with a white couple wishing to move in and negotiate some zoning changes, while a black couple represents the neighborhood association.
Relationships to the past slowly are revealed, along with some strong racial prejudices. Things get pretty nasty, as cutting slurs are slung, mostly through an exchange of racial jokes.
This is some pretty strong, tough theatre with language and racial epithets that may offend some, but are vital to the message of the play. You’ll find yourself laughing one minute and holding your breath the next.
The play ends with a poignant scene, leaving us to go out into our own neighborhoods with a lot to think about. If you like cutting-edge theatre, don’t miss this terrific production.
“Clybourne Park” is at Trinity Repertory Theatre through Nov. 20. Call 351-4242 for reservations.