Theatre Review: “Clybourne Park”
The first act of Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” directed by Keri Wormald for Cadence Theatre Company, is set in 1959 and serves as a sort of prequel to Lorainne Hansberry’s famous play “A Raisin in the Sun.” Russ and Bev, played by David Bridgewater and Katie McCall, are a white couple in the who have recently sold their house to a black family. As many theatre aficionados are aware, “A Raisin in the Sun” tells the story of the family who plans to occupy Russ and Bev’s house. While the couple are unaware that they’ve sold the house to a black family, the neighborhood association has become determined not to let the family move in as they believe the property values of their homes were be affected.
The most vocal member of the association is Karl, played by Andrew Firda, who stops by Russ and Bev’s to discuss the matter as the two are packing up their belongings, with his wife Betsy, played by McLean Jesse. Betsy is pregnant as well as deaf, it becomes apparent that these specific details were seemingly included by Norris so the audience would realize when Betsy is referenced in Act II, which is set 50 years later.
As Karl tries to persuade Bev and Russ into reconsidering the sale of their home, he awkwardly interrogates their black maid Francine, played by Tyra D. Robinson , and her husband Albert, played by Thomas Nowlin, by asking them about their specific social interests and whether or not they would feel comfortable living in Clybourne Park. Nowlin gives an amazing performance as Albert; he sarcastically responds to Karl’s asinine questions with perceived stereotypes about black culture, which serve to highlight just how naïve and stupid Karl actually sounds.
We find out that Bev and Russ’s son, a veteran, committed suicide in the upstairs bedroom after returning from the Korean War. And this tragedy seems to be a reason for the reduced cost of their home and for the couple wanting to leave it. Bridgewater gives a gut wrenching performance in the first act especially when he confronts Karl about the neighborhood’s less than warm reception of his son when he returned from the war.
The second act centers around a meeting between the neighborhood association and a new couple wishing to buy and remodel the house 50 years later in 2009. Firda and Jesse, again, play a married couple named Steve and Lindsey. Steve is a bit of nerd and Lindsey is an uptight, type-A suburbanite. Jesse is hilarious in the second act, flying off the handle several times and profusely using hand sanitizer.
Nowlin and Robinson also play a married couple in this act, Kevin and Lena, who are meeting with Steve and Lindsey as representatives of the neighborhood association. Norris puts a twist on the second act as McCall, who played Bev in the first act, plays a lawyer for Steve and Lindsey and Bridgewater is a loud mouthed construction worker with a thick Chicago accent, reminiscent of the famed SNL skit “Bill Swerski’s superfans” and their love of “DA BEARS.”
I found the transition between the two acts to be a bit confusing at first. If I hadn’t read through my program and was aware of the time change from 1959 to 2009, I’m sure it would have taken me a minute to figure out what was going on, as at first it appears as if we may be watching the actors do a read through of the script on stage. It may be helpful to have the dates flashed on the back wall of the set before the start of the play and between acts.
The set by Phil Hayes is very minimal, focusing on the family room of the house. Although the set is simple, it is beautifully and convincingly constructed. Lynn West’s costume design is strongest in Act I. The costumes are era appropriate and well-tailored.
“Clybourne Park” is definitely thought provoking and the contrast between 1959 and 2009 presented through Norris’ characters is fascinating. Norris makes several astute observations about race, showing that even though we believe we have come so far in 50 years and laws many laws and social norms might have changed, they actually aren’t all that different either. As Wormald says in the program, “when a play leads to discussion (which can lead to change), that’s a bonus.”
“Clybourne Park” is playing through March 15 at Theatre Gym at the Virginia Rep Center.
Jen Maciulewicz is theatre critic for GAYRVA.com and is a Richmond local. Jen attended VCU and holds a B.S. in Anthropology. She has starred as Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes" and attended VCU’s School of Music. Follow Jen on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jenlaumac.
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