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Chicago by John Olson

Clybourne Park
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Clybourne Park
Cliff Chamberlain, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Brendan Marshall-Rashid, Stephanie Childers and Karen Aldridge
There's something about the term "Pulitzer Prize" that suggests a certain weightiness. Yet, I'm happy to report that, while Bruce Norris's Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park is weighty in terms of the significance of its topics and the acuity of its insights, it has all the zip, wit and energy of his best work (my personal favorite being The Pain and the Itch). It may well be the funniest winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama since How to Succeed ..., but with more bite. At Steppenwolf, director Amy Morton and a uniformly superb cast give rich, nuanced performances with expert comic timing to wring out all the humor and emotion from Norris's prize-winning script.

As he showed in The Pain and the Itch and The Unmentionables, Norris has some pretty strong feelings about the barriers we allow class, race and ethnicity to create for us in living among those whose backgrounds are different from ours. He's especially tough on moneyed white folks whom he shows to be exceptionally self-absorbed. In Clybourne Park, he creates a story around the house eventually bought by the African-American Younger family of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun as a vehicle to explore racial prejudice in the broader context of general intolerance.

The play's first act takes place in 1959, in the Chicago home that will in two days be sold to Raisin's Lena Younger. Norris explores the reasons the home is for sale at a price the Youngers can afford. The sellers are a late middle-aged couple named Russ and Bev Stoller and, while they are not initially aware their home is to be sold to a black family—the first nonwhite family in their neighborhood called Clybourne Park—there's no evidence they're racists themselves. Bev (in a quiet, sensitive portrayal by Kirsten Fitzgerald) seems to be genuinely sorry to be parting ways with their African-American housekeeper Francine (Karen Aldridge). Even though Bev doesn't know how many children Francine has, she feels a bond with Francine based on years of shared experiences and crises. Still, class and race differences make it impossible for the housekeeper to fully share and reciprocate those feelings. Aldridge gives a delicate performance—showing a Francine who keeps her feelings hidden from the Stollers. She's desperate to avoid trouble and simply get through the next few days before leaving their employ. She shows Francine's growing tension as her efforts to get out of the house before any fireworks start are thwarted by the desires of her well-meaning husband (James Vincent Meredith) to help the Stollers move a heavy trunk.

Russ Stoller (John Judd) seems a little depressed—he hasn't fully changed into street clothes from his pajamas even though it's mid-afternoon. A visit from the genial neighborhood minister Jim (in a slightly goofy characterization by Brendan Marshall-Rashid) doesn't help, and when the neighborhood group representative Karl Lindner (a character from the Hansberry play) shows up to try to get Russ to stop the sale to the Youngers, things get explosive. We learn how the Stollers' son Kenneth, a Korean War vet shunned by the neighbors after being accused of committing atrocities, committed suicide in their home. The Stollers' resentment toward the neighbors over their treatment of Kenneth prompted the family to decide to move away—and Kenneth's suicide forced a drop in the property values that put it within the Youngers' reach. Judd gives a bravura performance—covering the quiet anguish of the grieving father still trying to keep a game face on, through becoming irritated at the minister Jim, gently warning him that he may have to tell him to "go fuck himself" if he doesn't stop asking about Kenneth's death; and ultimately exploding at Lindner's threat to reveal the suicide in hopes of killing the sale.

There's much humor in the first act. Cliff Chamberlain is an amusingly irritating and nerdy Lindner, and Stephanie Childers as his pregnant and deaf wife Betsy provides additional comic relief. Even so, it has the structure and punch of a classic 1950s American drama. Though Norris's satire is still sharp, the concern for his suffering characters is real. Even Lindner is shown to oppose the sale of the home to a "colored" family more out of fears for his family's economic security than out of deep-seated racism.

Clybourne Park's second act takes place in 2009, in the same home—though Todd Rosenthal's set is dramatically transformed from the well-kept vintage house of the first act into a graffiti-covered, burned-out shell. A meeting between a new pair of buyers (a white yuppie couple), representatives of the current neighborhood association, and attorneys for each side is underway. This time, the white couple are the intruders, into an almost entirely African-American neighborhood. The concern of the neighborhood is not the new neighbors' race, but their plans to build a new house on the lot that would not conform to the historical character of the street. A negotiation is underway, frequently disrupted by mobile phone calls to the self-absorbed buyers and questions from the contractor, but it seems friendly enough. The white couple, Steve and Lindsey, seek to establish a rapport with the black couple and are surprised to see how many acquaintances they have in common. But before long, the conversation degenerates into a battle in which jokes based on racial and gender stereotypes are used as weapons. There's something to offend everyone—and everyone has a reason to feel "otherness"—blacks, career-driven working women, white men who are not in the higher echelons of power, gays—and yes, even attorneys.

These seven new characters are played by the same cast from the first act. The characterizations all stand out on their own, but are even more remarkable for the distinctions from their first act characters. Kirsten Fitzgerald, the matronly Bev of the first act, is nearly unrecognizable when she returns as the buyers' fashionably dressed attorney Kathy (the child Betsy Lindner was carrying in act one). In act two, Childers is the anything-but-mute Lindsey, an arrogant professional who constantly demeans her less successful husband Steve. Cliff Chamberlain plays Steve as an affable loser—not as anxious as Lindner but perhaps equally unhappy. Aldridge, the deferential housekeeper Francine of the first act, is now the polite but tough leader of the neighborhood association (and a great-niece of Raisin's matriarch Lena Younger). Meredith is again her husband, but this time he's a successful, confident businessman who carries himself so differently we barely recognize the actor. Marshall is now the quietly professional attorney for the neighborhood association and Judd the rugged contractor supervising the demolition of the house.

While the characters of the first act seem mostly to accept as fact the idea that communities should be racially (and possibly even ethnically) segregated, the people of the second act understand that position is no longer a norm. Still, despite their initial efforts to find common ground, the parties retreat to their respective corners of otherness—with perhaps even more divisions than the dichotomous black/white ones of the earlier era.

Norris ends the play with an epilogue of Kenneth's last day before committing suicide. At first blush, it seems a bit tacked on, but on further reflection, here's one possible interpretation: Community matters. The Clybourne Park community failed Kenneth and their insensitivity to his plight led to his death. We have a responsibility to the others in our community whether they fit neatly into our comfort zones or not. It's an especially good message for a city that calls itself a "city of neighborhoods," but an important tenet for all. And the sort of truth that helps win a Pulitzer.

Clybourne Park will play through November 6, 2011, at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. For ticket information, call 312-335-1650, visit www.steppenwolf.org or visit the box office.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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