Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Clybourne Park, revived at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

The power of words.   Talking, yet not communicating.  Fear of change.  Fear of the different.   Bruce Norris' revelatory play, Clybourne Park, is a thought-provoking examination of class, race, gentrification, resistance to change and the use of language to invoke your point-of-view.   Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin In The Sun, Clybourne Park takes as its setting the home, located at 406 Clybourne Street, that the Younger family of  Raisin has put a down payment on in white suburbia, and in act one, examines the story from the point of view of the family that is selling said home. In act two, the same home, and its neighborhood face another turning point that will change it forever.

As a starting point, Mr. Norris has taken the role of Karl Lindner, the only white character from Raisin and greatly expanded upon it. Karl Linder represents the Clybourne Park Neighborhood Association and in A Raisin In The Sun, he visited the Younger family to offer to buy back the house in order to prevent them becoming the first black family to live there.  Karl Linder is defter in his persuasions to the Younger family than he is in Clybourne Park.  Here, perhaps because he is more comfortable amongst people he feels are like-minded, Mr. Linder can become a force of nature against what he perceives is as a threat to his natural order of the world.  Mr. Linder is the focus of the diatribes of the changes in society.  It is to Mr. Norris' credit that Clybourne Park focuses on Russ and Bev, the middle-aged white couple selling the home and the harrowing reason that the home is being sold.

Given the race relations of the 1950's it is important to show the reasons that a home in a neighborhood such as Clybourne Park would be sold to a black family.  It is clear that the home has enough darkness enveloping it and the family within to prevent it from being sold to anyone else.   Mr. Norris leisurely envelops the audience in the chilly marriage of Russ and Bev, the artificial friendship between Bev and the family housekeeper, Francine, and the subtly hostile relationship particularly between Russ and Karl and even, Jim, a local pastor.   Thrown into this charged atmosphere are Francine's husband, Albert and Karl's wife, Betsy.   

The act simmers to a slow boil, as Russ, in particular has no patience for his concerned white neighbors.  Clybourne Park has failed his family when they needed the support of their neighbors.   Russ has no patience for the neighborhood's alarm that this home has been sold to a black family.    Yet, Karl Linder pushes his views, more harshly than the character did in his original incarnation in Raisin, and the other characters, at first with reticence and the constraints of polite society contribute their  views until they threaten to boil.  In the end, no one has their views changed, and we are left with Russ and Bev, heartbroken, struggling to bury their painful past and move away from Clybourne Park to an uncertain future. 

Act two takes us fifty years into the future.  It is 2009, once again the little house has been sold, yet the situation has reversed.   406 Clybourne Street has become a decayed shell.  Now located in a majority black neighborhood, the conflict revolves around the young white couple who have purchased the home and plan to demolish it to build a substantially larger structure.  We have entered the world of gentrification.  This time it is the black residents, Kevin and Lena, who represent the neighborhood's concerns, fighting to keep the architectural character of what they perceive as an historic black neighborhood from being superseded by the proposed, for lack of a better term, McMansion, which, like the conflict of the first act, will change the neighborhood forever.  

There are more diatribes in act two, yet, the sentiments and points of view expressed echo the concerns of the 1959 house.   Again, the audience is left with no clear resolution.  No one's viewpoint is changed, many hurt feelings occur, and the dark secret of this doomed property looms over the proceedings.   Clybourne Park ends with only questions that the audience must take, digest, and ponder.

This production is a remount of Woolly Mammoth's 2010 Helen Hayes Award-winning production and the cast has returned intact.  The ensemble is a perfect unit and the performances are uniformly excellent.   Most of the cast portrays dual roles.  Chris Dinolfo is the exception, and he brings pathos to his small role of Kenneth.  Michael Glenn traverses his well-meaning Jim and reasonable Tom.  Jefferson A. Russell navigates the strictures of the 1950's Albert, and the charmingly forceful Kevin.  Dawn Ursula walks the same tightrope as the 1950's Francine and the passionate, outspoken Lena. Kimberly Gilbert is fascinating as the sheltered because she is deaf Betsy and the equally determined Lindsay bewildered and defensive that anyone would object to her dream home.

Mitchell Hebert is in turns, closed off, distant, and justifiably angry as Russ, a father and husband who allows his emotionless facade to shatter in the faces of the neighbors he sees as the catalyst for the destruction of his family.   Jennifer Mendenhall is heartbreaking as Bev a wife and grieving woman who fights to maintain the stoic dignity that society is determined she must present to the world.  Both actors do well in the act two minor roles of Tom, a workman, and Kathy, a lawyer.

Cody Nickell takes two deeply unlikeable characters, Karl and the young husband, Steve, and turns them both into fascinating studies of men who care little for the niceties of discussing precarious subjects as long as their viewpoint prevails.   Both Karl and Steve steamroll the other characters, yet similar to the blowhards on talk radio, Mr. Nickell makes the audience unable to turn away in disgust.  The audience is instead mesmerized into wondering how far these will go to prevail in their respective arguments, and will anyone on stage commit violence towards them if Karl and Steve don't see the need to back down and shut up.  It is a wonderful performance.

The direction of Howard Shalwitz is deftly handled particularly with the added challenge that some audience is seated behind the set.  James Kronzer's set design is remarkable and The Thespian recommends watching the intermission transformation from the tidy home of 1959 to the decaying shell of 2009. 

Woolly Mammoth is to be commended for giving the audiences ample opportunity to discuss the issues raised in Clybourne Park.   Audience dialogues are being held following all  Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening performances.  Town hall  Mammoth Forum discussions will be held at 5:15 p.m. On Sundays July 31, August 7 and August 14.  .  Artistic forums will be held at 5:15 p.m. On Saturdays August 6 and 13.  You do not need to see the matinee performance to attend the forums.   For information on specific speakers as well as Woolly Mammoth podcasts please visit their website.

Clybourne Park will be performed at Woolly Mammoth through August 14, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit

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