Playwright and actor Bruce Norris is most associated with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago, which has produced the last five of his plays. His work includes The Actor Retires, The Vanishing Twin,The Infidel, Purple Heart, We All Went Down to Amsterdam, The Pain and the Itch, The Unmentionables, Clybourne Park and A Parallelogram. His fast-paced dramas are reminiscent of Edward Albee's comically tragic plays, which examine the complexities of the American family.
The story about race and real estate in America opens in 1959 in a middle-class Chicago suburb. A white couple sells their home to an African-American family (the same home and same African-American family as in Loraine Hansberry's groundbreaking drama), causing an uproar in their neighborhood. Act two transports us to the same house in 2009, when the stakes are different, but the debate is strikingly familiar. A white couple moving into the neighborhood wishes to knock down the house and build a home that may potentially change the look of the neighborhood. Amid lightning-quick repartee, the characters scramble for control of the situation, revealing how possibly the language has changed, but the conversation has remained the same.
Set design by Tim Bennett brilliantly transforms from the tidy, 1950s home in the first act to the 2009 dilapidated interior of a home in need of repair in the second act. Nice attention has been paid to details such as faded and ripped wallpaper, damaged and distressed woodwork, and small holes in walls where someone has tried to make electrical repairs. Sound is not quite so successful, as it was difficult to hear all the lines between Bev (Patti Gardner) and Russ (Kenneth Kay) during the first act at the performance I attended. It actually sounded as though no microphones were on. Costuming is a bit odd in the first act as well. Bev's skirt is very 1950s but the blouse seems not in keeping with the periodand it looks like she is wearing character shoes. Russ is said to be wearing pajamas but his pants look like regular pants and, though his wife says he's changed his shirt, it looks just like the one he just had on.
The pacing of the dialogue of the first fifteen minutes of act one drags unnecessarily. It becomes tedious, especially when compared to the intelligent banter later in the show. Though the script perhaps doesn't give enough emotional connection between husband and wife Russ and Bev, Kenneth Kay and Patti Gardner manage to lay down the basic structure of their relationship fairly well. It seems clear enough that they dance on the surface of everyday things to avoid the grief of the loss of their son. Kay's role as Dan in the second act is negligible, though he seems to be chomping at the bit to establish his character.
Gregg Weiner, as Karl and Steve, is in both instances the man you love to hate. Karl is more small minded and intrusive, while Steve is more the guy who just doesn't know any better than to stick his foot in his mouth. Weiner seems to specialize in these roles as an actorand rightfully so, as he does them well. Margery Lowe finds her comedy moments as both Betsy and Lindsey. There is an endearing quality about her portrayal of the hearing-impaired Betsy, and we don't get many moments in the play to find anyone endearing. Cliff Burgess misses the mark a bit in this production. His character does not seem at all like a minister in the first act, except for the fact that he attempts to diffuse the situation with prayer a couple of times. His character in the second act announces he's gay, but it is not played or referenced in any way. His characters in both acts are too much the same. He just swaps a Bible for a BlackBerry. Karen Stephens and Brian D. Coats skillfully master the art of subtlety in their performances, especially in the first act. As Francine and Albert, there is an underlying tension and restraint in their relationship with each other, and their mostly silent observation of what is happening around them that is beautifully acted. Their performances, though not the largest roles in the show, are memorable ones, leaving us wanting more of their characters.
The ending of the play should feel like an epiphany of what is really important. In this case, all the bickering over white versus black neighbors, or zoning that threatens to change the face of a neighborhood, pales in comparison to what should be the heartbreaking loss of a son at his own hand. While the staging and direction of this show is especially strong in the second act, it falls flat at the end. Our brief visit with the specter of the deceased son weakens the issues of racial tension without elevating the issue of personal loss. It leaves us wondering which is more important to the author, director and cast. While this ending needs to be cleaned, Clybourne Park is otherwise a cleanly acted show.
Clybourne Park will be appearing through February 6, 2011, at the Caldwell Theatre. The Caldwell Theatre Company is a professional theatre company hiring local and non-local Equity and non-Equity actors. The Caldwell Theatre Company is designated by the State of Florida as a Cultural Institution and receives funding from the State of Florida through the Florida Department of State, the Florida Arts Council and the Division of Cultural Affairs. The Caldwell Theatre Company is located in the Count De Hoernle Theatre at 7901 N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton, Florida. Performance times are Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. For information and/or tickets you may contact them by phone at 561-241-7432 or online at www.caldwelltheatre.com.
*Indicates member of the Actor's Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.