Clybourne Park (revisited), by Bruce Norris. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Remi Sandri as Russ; Carol Halstead as Bev; photo: provided
"Show me where to find the skiing Negroes."
On August 15 of this year I saw this production of the Pulitzer, Tony and Olivier winning play in Dorset, Vermont. Now I’ve seen it again in Pittsfield at Barrington Stage. Not much has changed except for a few visual things and a company that has now played the show much longer than most summer theaters carry a single play. That is the principal joy of a co-production. That, and the sharing of expenses which allows a theater to take on a project worth working on without the maximum individual outlay. This is certainly a play worth examining, producing and viewing, but seeing it again has not really changed any of my previous observations.
The play is based on the plot situation in Lorraine Hansberry’s brilliant and incisive play, "A Raisin in the Sun" in which a black family ultimately braves the problems of moving into an all-white neighborhood in suburban Chicago. Lena Younger and her family make the move in spite of the efforts of a community group lead by Karl Linder to purchase the property from under them and make nice, soothe the situation with psycho-babble. In this new play Linder tries to convince the sellers not to sell to Blacks over the occasional objection of his own well-meaning neighbors.
Like all sellers, Russ is motivated. In this case he is motivated not by greed but by grief. His only son, a Korean war veteran, has taken his own life and Russ desperately needs to separate himself from the site of this self-destruction. His wife, Bev, doesn’t quite get it. Neither do his friends and neighbors. But the sale goes through. We know that from the Hansberry play.
The big surprise comes in Act Two, set fifty years later, when re-gentrification is taking place in Clybourne Park as upwardly mobile Whites try to buy into the neighborhood. Racism in small and large jolts come into play and a grave new world emerges from the miracle of learned lessons into a retroactive sensibility with role reversals and the same old nonsense prevailing.
The play ends with a wisp of a scene played out around a lone construction worker who cannot comprehend what he is reading. It is a letter from the suicide victim to his parents which made its first appearance in Act One. As this nearly mimed, but really whispered, scene plays around this man we are dragged back to a time before the show began and an act that may have started the whole process of "change" but it still doesn’t feel like a proper ending to me for a play that has so much to say about unrelated realities. I thought this moment killed the play seven weeks ago, but now I just think it weakens it. And so I can understand the Olivier and the Tony because the play is basically good and, in this case anyway, the actors are terrific. I just don’t know why it received the Pulitzer.
As Russ in Act One Remi Sandri plays a man whose troubled soul will not be disturbed further by reality. He has drawn an invisible circle around himself that no one else can enter. He does this with subtlety and plays with nuance and care until he is pressed too far to remain controlled. In the second half his character is a workman who, without knowing it, takes over where Russ has left off. Sandri plays both halves with equal amounts of gravitas and humor.
Carol Halstead plays his wife Bev whose flighty sensibilities are characterized by constant movement, refusal to listen and an overly pressured set of responses to other people. In the second half she is a realtor, the daughter of two other characters in act one, whose brittle and incisive remarks are hilarious. She is so good at both of these roles that I did not immediately recognize her in Act Two.
Francine, the cleaning woman, is played by Lynnette Freeman and she makes this role into something more than just the maid. She is Ruth Younger personified, wanting respect and the money she earns from white people and nothing more. As Lena, the younger, in Act Two, she has a modernity that is absolutely perfect. Her body language, her verbal tone, her poise and her poses speak volumes about her character.
Her husband in act one, Albert, is a Denzel Washington type character as portrayed by Andy Lucien. He captures the basketball-player-like grace of this man without ever overplaying the allusion. Lucien plays the black man whose wife can control him with a single glance here and he is wonderful with this role. His second act role, Kevin, is as right as can be with his more modern demeanor and his head rolling responses to what is being said. His underlying violence in the first half is tamed in Act Two to a joke-telling back-biter you cannot help but like.
Kevin Crouch plays three roles: Jim, a minister in Act One and Tom, a lawyer in Act Two and Kenneth the suicide soldier. He is perfectly 1950s as Jim and ideally self-absorbed as Tom. I can’t imagine anyone being more right for these two roles.
Clea Alsip plays two pregnant women, each with her own special agenda. Betsey just wants to be understood and not abused by the kindness of neighbors. It’s a wonderful role for Alsip who plays the bemused, and possibly in-labor lady, with great style. The brashness of her 2009 character, Lindsey, takes pregnancy to a new hysterical level. Lindsey is much harder to like as presented here, but that’s all to the good for the play.
Karl and Steve are played by Greg Jackson. This dual role part garnered Jeremy Shamos a Tony Award nomination and it’s easy to see why for the writing in both parts is so rich with character and nuance and message. Jackson handles all of this with talent and with ease and with charm not natural to either character. As directed this duo-role takes on a greater significance in an ensemble piece than it ought. With few exceptions Jackson never leaves upstage center which keeps him at the focal point in our vision. What he does is important and what his characters say is relevant, but not much more so than any other character.
This is the sad point in Giovanna Sardelli’s otherwise excellent direction of the play. She has found a way into the hearts of Norris’s people. She helps expose their souls in the vibrant and electric moments their conversations inspire. We truly get to know everyone, including the initially reticent Russ. But once a tableau is established, very few people move more than a few feet to either side retaining an almost Chess-like playing field where advancing and retreating only needs a few steps. I think she could have given us more to see in her two groups of people and perhaps opened up an even broader spectrum of emotional pairings.
Production details are well handled by the designers for this production. Nabelle Sissons’ set is wonderful and unique, a place I’d like to walk through to see the other rooms. Barbara A. Bell has drawn ideal pictures of the times with her costumes. The simple, subtle lighting by Michael Giannitti should take on a softer focus for the final moments of the play (which is how I remember it in Dorset) for that is just what the play demands. Ryan Rumery sets each scene with the appropriate music.
Both times I’ve seen this play I’ve wanted to go back to the film version of "A Raisin in the Sun" and watch Karl Linder in the Younger’s apartment. That character inspired this play and I want to know that I remember him well. . .ah, yes, I remember him well.
Clybourne Park plays at the Boyd-Quinson Main Stage of Barrington Stage Company located at 30 Union Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts through October 13. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line at www.barringtostageco.org.