The power of Clybourne Park is not immediately evident, but instead it creeps up and takes hold; a stranglehold. The construct of the play seems so simple, almost a graduate thesis on: Raisin In The Sun Ever After? Written by Bruce Norris, the first Act takes place “apres Raisin” in 1959 and the second Act is in 2009. Seven actors play the act’s different roles (or are they different?) The second Act characters are often shadows of the 1959 characters.
The story (in 1959) is that Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood) are preparing to move from their Clybourne Park home. Their housekeeper Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton) lend a helping hand. Ms. Dickinson and Mr. Gupton’s posture and demeanor portray more about the life of African Americans in 1959 than any narrative. They are simply magical. Soon Karl (Jeremy Shamos) and his wife Betsy (Annie Parisse) show up to confront Bev and Russ. It seems the house has been sold to a Negro family (unbeknownst to the owners.) Tensions are high and things get a bit ugly. It is uncovered that the owner’s son killed himself upstairs (this is seen as a real estate set-back for some reason.) Karl threatens to spill the beans to the new owners. The minister (Brendan Griffin) makes the ensemble less coupled.
The second Act curtain rises to the sight of the set ransacked, abused, neglected and abandoned. Graffiti scrawls the (once updated) wallpaper. Empty beer bottles, trash, and a baseball bat are the only decor. A neighborhood meeting is taking place to review the architectural plans for a new house in the place of the crumbling one before us. It is 2009 and the concerns over racial infiltration have been turned upside down. The African American couple is (somewhat) challenging the plans of the white couple and everyone has a lawyer. There are tremendously powerful (and often funny) moments, as Mr. Shamos’ Steve gets more and more defensive. Personal narratives unfold and we discover the modern characters connections to the neighborhood and each other (perhaps too tidily.) There is a lovely synchronicity at times. The day of the week in Act I is the same as Act II. There are several other references that make things feel solid. A great takeaway moment is the reversal of outrage (between acts) when one male character touches another male character. It is a bit confusing to see the new owners (of a house they’re going to raze) become distraught with the news of a suicide occurring upstairs (fifty years ago.) We expect to discover a horrific incident in the new owner’s past. But no. Just the idea that someone once killed themselves in the same latitude and longitude that their media room will inhabit is enough to send them around the bend.
At times, Pam MacKinnon’s direction is slightly halting and a bit overwrought. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the roles played by Christina Kirk. Her characterization of Bev in the first Act brought to mind Corky Sherwood (Murphy Brown) in her flailing mannerisms and extreme annunciations. This was no doubt intentional and brought a point home that was lost on me. Ms. Kirk is brilliantly delicate in her moments with Betsy (Annie Parisse.) Ms. Parisse is unrecognizable as a (deaf) neighbor great with child. Speaking (convincingly) as a woman deaf since birth (and being thoroughly ignored) she creates a telling vignette of her own upstage with Ms. Kirk. (It is mildly disconcerting to have this plot device alongside Ms. Kirk and her real, if slight, speech impediment. It’s distracting trying to determine if there’s intention behind the casting.) Jeremy Shamos certainly has a great role and knows exactly what to do with it. He is simply wonderful.
Clybourne Park is the story of power; who has it, who’s losing it and who desperately needs it. Race is part of that story. These are large issues Mr. Norris is discussing. Their power transcends the sometimes awkward delivery system in play. What is magnificent is how the characters (in both acts) speak and interact with each other. The dialogue is jammed packed and often tumbling out and over in competing conversations. There are painfully accurate vignettes (some involving capitals of countries) that demonstrate just how myopic we really can be, and tragically, how we probably always will be.