“Clybourne Park” Reaches Across The Decades To Put Us Back At Square One

The cast of the Rep’s “Clybourne Park” during a tension-filled first act. Photo credited to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

It picks up where Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin In The Sun” ends and then transports us fifty years into the future, but the multiple award winning “Clybourne Park” shows how little has changed over those years. Mistrust and preconceived notions are still at the root of racial prejudice and profiling in our world but it’s interesting to see how the tactics and gentility of the situations have changed- including a shift in the power play. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis brings us this wonderful play in the Studio Theatre.

Act I shows us the small urban neighborhood filled with a mix of nationalities near Chicago in 1959. Tragedy has struck the owners of one of the bungalows and, after failing to deal with their son’s death, they decide to move away from the memories that haunt them daily. Russ has dealt with the blow by increasingly growing anxious and angry. His wife, Bev, tries to maintain the daily flow which is now preparing for the big move. Her packing and cheerful attitude tries to overshadow her husband’s lack of help and obsession with trivia. Mark Anderson Phillips is powerful as the stoic Russ as you can see the tension boiling right below the surface. Nancy Bell provides a “June Cleaver” attitude but her breaking point also seems near.

Tanesha Gary politely declines the offer of a chaffing dish from Nancy Bell in “Clybourne Park” at the Rep Studio. Photo credit to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Tanesha Gary gives a strong performance as the “colored” maid, Francine, who plays the role of acquiescence while showing just the right amount of disdain. Enter Eric Gilde as a minister friend who tries to- as he obviously has so many times previously- provide solace to this family who is still suffering their loss. But, this close to moving day, he lights the spark under Russ who eventually blows his first of many gaskets during this tension-ridden first act. His complete breakdown comes when a neighbor, Karl enters with his deaf wife, Betsy and eventually confronts Russ with the fact that his realtor- perhaps without Russ’ knowledge- has sold the house to a black family.

Michael James Reed is outstanding as the “cautious” bigot who pulls out all the stops to convince Russ to squelch the deal. Each volley results in tempers reaching the breaking point. As Betsy, Shanara Gabrielle gives a convincing performance as she attempts to understand what the ruckus is about. Finally, we add Chauncy Thomas to the mix as Francine’s husband. All seven characters provide enough tension to make an audience feel uncomfortable at times, perhaps a bit guilty, and even break out in nervous laughter.

Act II jumps ahead 50 years in the same bungalow after the incredible “show” at intermission where the running crew takes the marvelous Scott C. Neale set and transforms it from the charming little house into a graffiti stained and trashed “crack” house in just short of the 15-minute interval. This time the cast takes on different roles- all with unexpected ties to the families from the previous act- as a young couple are trying to move in and renovate the house but are meeting with lawyers and members of the local neighborhood association to iron out some of their proposed plans. As the plot unfolds, we see how the “faces” may have changed but the problems have not. Then the final scene ties everything together from five decades previously. Although I believe playwright Bruce Norris went a bit further than he had to in bringing back characters from the first act. He had the perfect ending already with a revealing letter from the deceased son in the hands of a workman on the renovation crew- simple but effective.

The Bruce Norris script is strong- after all it won multiple awards here and in England- but I found both acts a bit off in several ways. The first act seemed at times a bit too much like a sitcom as it opens. It’s in sharp contrast to the vitriol that closes the act, but it seems too cartoonish for such a serious work. Even the actors seemed almost like “characters” instead of real people. That may have been more a directorial choice than a flaw in the script. While the second act got bogged down in legalese and constant interruptions. I can see where the playwright was going, but it got to be unnerving at times as you waited for the plot to move along. Credit the actors, however, with keeping it all on an even keel and grabbing the audience and never letting go. Kudos as well to director Timothy Near for keeping us absorbed in the real story and bringing out every nuance in the script to get the point across.

Same cast, different characters, 50 years later, same amount of tension in “Clybourne Park” at the Rep Studio. Photo courtesy of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

I already mentioned the unbelievable word of set designer Scott C. Neale, but the play also is enhanced by yeoman work by the entire technical crew including Lou Bird’s decade-appropriate costumes, the Ann G. Wrightson lights and a marvelous sound design provided by Tom Haverkamp. This was definitely worthy of a Mainstage production but due to some of the language in the second act and maybe even some of the highly volatile subject matter, Steve Woolf and company made the wise choice of bringing this powerful show to the smaller venue of the Studio space.

“Clybourne Park” got a week’s extension before it even opened and you can see why. Word of mouth precedes it and it is a play worthy of its hype. It is one of those “not to be missed” moments on stage and one we can all relate to in our own way. See it at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre- now through November 18th. Contact them at 314-968-4925 for tickets or more information.

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