The adage "A picture is worth a thousand words" suggests that a single visual image is the equal of verbose description. In two acts set fifty years apart, Clybourne Park playwright Bruce Norris holds up a black and white snapshot with its corresponding negative to compare and contrast the families that inhabit one house in a fictional Chicago neighborhood. His words have been honored with the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 2011 Olivier Award for Best New Play, and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, but it is the strong images of pain, shame and anger on the faces of his characters that have the greatest impact and are seared into the collective memory of the audience.
Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (which coincidentally is running through April 7 at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company), Clybourne Park is Norris' not-so-sunny view of race relations in America, even as the first African-American President inhabits the White House. Act one takes place in 1959 as the home in a white community is being sold to a black family, specifically the Youngers from Raisin. In the second act, it is 2009 and the residents of the predominantly African American neighborhood are struggling to stave off gentrification as a white couple has plans to raze the house and rebuild.
The juxtaposition of these vignettes is powerful and M. Bevin O'Gara, making her SpeakEasy Stage Company directorial debut, captures all of the tension and mistrust between the parties, creating an atmosphere that crackles with sparks seen and unseen. She also makes the most of the stellar cast, all of whom play different roles in each act. Michael Kaye is the antagonist Karl Lindner, the sole character borrowed from Hansberry, who nervously tries to convince the sellers Russ (Thomas Derrah) and Bev (Paula Plum) of the error of their ways. Hoping to prevent the first step on the slippery slope of "there goes the neighborhood," Lindner unsuccessfully tries to buy off the Youngers before pleading his case to Russ and Bev. He is an unabashed, racist prig and Kaye earns our disdain without resorting to mustache-twirling.
Fast forward fifty years when Kaye plays Steve, half of the couple buying the property, and his relaxed demeanor can't hide the fact that he is the second act's descendant of Lindner. Philana Mia plays the wife of both mena very pregnant, totally deaf woman who defers to and depends upon Lindner in the first act, and an educated liberal (also pregnant) who is outraged by the non-p.c. statements emanating from her husband in act two. They go toe to toe with Lena (Marvelyn McFarlane), the namesake of her aunt from the Younger family, and her husband Kevin (DeLance Minefee) who stand up for the history and legacy of their neighborhood. In the earlier time frame, McFarlane plays the housekeeper who shares an awkward cordiality with her employers, with Minefee as her unassuming husband.
While Lindner is an archetype who merits study as a specimen, it is the underlying story of Russ and Bev that draws us into the profundity of Clybourne Park. Derrah and Plum inhabit these characters, both of whom are struggling to merely exist under the burden of a terrible tragedy. His way is to shut down and tough it out, until Lindner provokes his rage; she epitomizes the cheery "life must go on" '50s housewife, but still waters run deep. These two consummate actors give riveting, heartbreaking performances that leave them both looking spent by the end of the act. They carry lighter loads in the second act where Plum's bohemian attorney is the former Lindner baby, and Derrah is the workman who repeatedly interrupts the negotiating meeting between the two couples. Tim Spears finds the right balance between trying to be helpful and staying out of the way as the 1959 family pastor and the 2009 attorney for Lena and Kevin.
The house is the cornerstone of the play, giving great significance to Cristina Todesco's scenic design. She gives us the suggestion of a living room, with the skeleton of a structure consisting of 2x4s without walls. There is a window seat under a bank of bare bay windows, an upstage central staircase, and doors leading to the basement and the front of the house. In act one, a few mixed pieces of furniture are eclipsed by cartons ready for moving. Although the house has fallen into disrepair in act two, the room has been updated with wall trim and mini-blinds, but the lack of furnishings and makeshift seating imply the impending demolition. Deb Sullivan's lighting design is effective throughout, but it is especially dramatic in the final scene, gently attached like a coda.
Sound Designer Arshan Gailus opens the play with an evocative 1950s music track ("Dream When You're Feeling Blue" seems most appropriate) and provides background sounds of barking dogs and contemporary music at the start of the second act. Mary Lauve's costume designs sharply delineate the fashion dichotomy of the two eras. Bev's shirtwaist dress contrasts with Kathy's blousy top and long, flowing skirt. The maternity outfit in the first act is a knee-length skirt and traditional tunic-length over blouse, but the modern expectant mother is garbed in a smock-like tank top and skinny jeans. The men trade their shirts and ties for polos and shorts, sneakers and flip flops.
The SpeakEasy Stage production is the Boston premiere of Clybourne Park and, in addition to it being O'Gara's first assignment with the company, Kaye, McFarlane, Mia, Minefee and Spears are also making their debuts, although none are strangers to Boston audiences. Anchored by Derrah and Plum, the ensemble delivers every uncomfortable truth that the playwright puts forth with authenticity, dignity and sincerity. Norris doesn't believe that there's a solution to the issues he raises in his play, but I'd like to put this crew together in a room and give them a shot.
Clybourne Park performances through March 30, 2013, at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.speakeasystage.com. Written by Bruce Norris, Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara; Scenic Design, Cristina Todesco; Costume Design, Mary Lauve; Lighting Design, Deb Sullivan; Sound Design, Arshan Gailus; Production Stage Manager, Adele Nadine Traub
Cast: Thomas Derrah, Michael Kaye, Marvelyn McFarlane, Philana Mia, DeLance Minefee, Paula Plum, Tim Spears