Clybourne Parkby Bruce Norris. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Maybe we should learn what the other person is."
Remi Sandri and Carol Halstead; photo: provided
An object lesson is learned in the course of the fifty years split between Act One and Act Two of Bruce Norris’ play "Clybourne Park" which is closing the principal season at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Dorset, Vermont. The lesson is a basic one: things never change - only the cast of characters change - they only grow moreso with time. In 1959, in a Lorraine Hansberry play, Lena Younger, her son Walter, his wife Ruth, their son Travis and Walter’s sister Beneatha are preparing to move into the Chicago suburb of Clybourne Park, integrating an all white community against its will. In 2009 in this new play Lena’s granddaughter, also named Lena, is on a committee that believes that selling to white people who want to change their neighborhood will automatically downgrade their property values: echo: things never change - only the cast of characters change - they only grow moreso with time.
This Pulitzer Prize winning play premiered on Broadway in April, 2012 and won the Tony Award for best play, echoing the sentiments of the British who had already given it an Olivier Award in 2011. The Younger family, who do not appear in this play (other than granddaughter Lena) were the creation of Lorraine Hansberry in her play "A Raisin in the Sun."
Act One of this play gives us the other side of the picture as the committee trying to buy back the house from Mrs. Younger confronts the sellers of the home whose story slowly is revealed. Russ and Bev have sold, through an agent, a house that has become impossible for them to share any longer. A tragedy within its walls has made it a daily horror for them. Their friends, along with other folks who want to protect the sanctity of their legally protected community, try to change this course, reflecting the reality of the Hansberry family in 1934 when they integrated the suburb of Washington Park.
The second half is author Bruce Norris’ concept of what time does to places like this, with Clybourne Park now a black ghetto being integrated once again, but this time by a white couple. There are laughs galore in both acts of this play but there is also pathos and tragedy and truth and this mixture makes the show into something more than a Neil Simon "laff-riot"; this is a play which touches on issues that we face all the time and lets us present our own responses to what is spoken, and what is done, to people who want to move forward with their lives.
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 a third role I’ll come back to later. 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.
For me the play moves into dangerous territory as its message and focus shifts in the final moments into a strange and eerie place. Crouch returns as Kenneth, the dead son of Russ and Bev and the play seems to want to place blame for the double gentrification of his neighborhood on his Korean War based death. I felt this was the wrong way to go; it removed me from the curious tale of time retelling its old stories of change and left me wondering exactly what it was the playwright was aiming for in his play. I was let down a bit. I was disappointed after being so swept up in this work.
Director Giovanna Sardelli has done a fine job of moving people and manipulating our point of view with this playwright’s words. She has done a curious thing with Karl and Steve, giving them center stage so often that he and his motivations become the point of focus for much of the show. We seem to always come back to him and Sardelli does this without much effort, but just by controlling his position in the stage picture.
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 takes on a soft focus for the final moments of the play and that is just what the play demands. Ryan Rumery sets each scene with the appropriate music.
This is a co-production with Barrington Stage Company and will re-open there in September, so watch for a re-review then. For now, catch it if you can. If you see me somewhere explain that final scene for me and tell me what I seem to have missed in this multiple award winning play. I liked everything about it, except for that. In a two hour and three minute play that speaks volumes, a three minute whisper isn’t a loss, really. And maybe it is just me.
Andy Lucien, Kevin Crouch, Lynnette Freeman; photo: provided
Clea Alsip, Greg Jackson
Clybourne Park plays at the Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset Vermont through August 31. For information and tickets call the box office at 802-867-2223 or go on line to www.dorsettheatrefestival.org.