Through the looking glass with 'Clybourne Park'

The more things change ...

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By Doug Deuchler

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Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, a winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Best Play, is currently playing at Oak Park's Open Door Theater. Originally this show premiered at Steppenwolf. 

It's a provocative, tautly constructed drama, though a bit of a slow-starter, that challenges us to examine our own attitudes about race. An assortment of characters from two different periods, 1959 and 2009, examine race relations with biting, dark humor and often bitter intensity. 

Clybourne Park takes place in the same living room exactly 50 years apart with different characters but played by the same group of seven actors. Director Mary Pat Sieck sustains a brisk pace and her talented actors, some of whom are relative newcomers to the local theater scene, keep the drama emotionally raw.

In the first act, which is a veritable companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, an African-American family is about to become the first nonwhite residents of the fictional older Chicago neighborhood that gives the play its title. We don't see that black family, however. The only character from Raisin we encounter is Karl Lindner (Graham Carlson) of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. 

Bev (Susie Griffith) and Russ (Brendan Murphy) are a middle-aged couple who have just sold their bungalow but do not realize that blacks have purchased it. This is the late '50s, the era of block-busting and panic-peddling, when unscrupulous realtors made big profits scaring homeowners into selling cheap and fleeing the neighborhood, then charging inflated prices to the new people moving in.

Act I is perhaps more involving and heartfelt, with deeper characterizations. Russ is sullen and withdrawn with clearly suppressed anger over the death of his son who had come back from Korea several years before with a lot of emotional baggage. Cheerful, good-hearted Bev, in many ways the June Cleaver/Harriet Nelson/Donna Reed '50s sitcom mom, is ever trying to please others and keep everyone happy. The couple's inability to confront their pain is poignant. Russ, in fact, seems to be on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

Bev has an observant African-American housekeeper named Francine (Terah Weddington) who wears maid's attire as she helps Bev pack the dishes for the move. Bev believes she's her friend, yet is not even clear on how many children Francine and her husband Albert (Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr.) have. 

As in any '50s sitcom, folks start dropping by. First there's a young pastor who dispenses platitudes (Kevin O'Boyle), followed by Karl Linder (Graham Carlson) and his very pregnant, deaf wife (Kate Fitzgerald). Karl struggles to convince Russ not to sell to "a colored family." Soon everyone is sniping at each other. When Francine's watchful husband stops by to pick her up, they both get dragged into the debate as well. 

Act I takes place in the Eisenhower era. In the second act, Obama is president. Though not as tight as the first half, Act II, exactly a half century later, presents a new generation of adversaries — and they all have shorter attention spans and even shorter tempers. But everyone starts out with superficial sensitivity and political correctness.

The Clybourne Park neighborhood had "turned black" decades earlier and during the '80s had even struggled with crime and drugs. But now gentrification is occurring as wealthy whites want to purchase homes, knock them down, and build McMansions in this old neighborhood that's fairly close to downtown. 

Kate Fitzgerald and Graham Carlson are Lindsey and Steve, a young idealistic couple who have all the correct terms for why they're razing the old bungalow. Earnestly liberal Lindsey talks about "marginalization" and how many black friends she has. The couple makes several offensive attempts to be inoffensive. 

Both acts build to a series of confrontations with plenty of hilarious dialogue that some might find offensive. In the second act, the bungalow is trashed and vacant — ripe for razing. But Lena (Weddington) and Kevin (Freelon) are longtime residents of this black neighborhood who fear the destruction of their community's distinctive history and character. Fifty years earlier, folks struggled to establish a middle-class African-American enclave here. So the gentrification process — the arrival of these elite white invaders — bothers them. Lena's deceased auntie, in fact, was Mrs. Younger from Raisin in the Sun, the first black owner of the home.

In Act II, Brendan Murphy plays a workman/handyman and sports some amazing tattoo art that appears to be real.

This play confronts racism, both overt and subtly hidden. There's lots of food for thought and conversation here. A post-show discussion might be quite invigorating. Whereas Raisin in the Sun was ultimately upbeat and hopeful, here it's not so clear. What's the playwright's message? Is Norris saying blacks and whites never got along and never will? Please discuss.

Steven Saliny designed the set, sound and tech. Josh Prisching also designed the set as well as the lighting and did the scenic painting. 

Clybourne Park is an often disturbing, sometimes annoying drama illustrating that in odd ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. A lot of issues get tossed around — classism, homophobia, war, and gender. 

Open Door has done a service in presenting us with the opportunity to see this successful contemporary, award-winning drama with such a solid production.

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Roger Conner from Oak Park  

Posted: September 30th, 2015 4:57 PM

This is an astounding production as noted in a rave review in "The Reader." It presents an all-star, scintillating, thoroughly professional cast directed with gripping, climax-building intensity. And no, I have no personal connection with the theater or any of its personnel! Just a retired English professor who lis lucky enough to live just a couple of blocks away.

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