American culture today can be considered a giant mixing pot. People of different religions, genders and races make up one of the most diverse populations on the planet, but this was not always the case. There used to be a time when the world was separated by sex, belief, and, most prominently, color. The transition from this separated world into the one we live in today can be considered one of the most difficult struggles man has ever faced and is one that many are still fighting today. Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, with the help of a phenomenal cast and gorgeously detailed set, puts into perspective some of the most basic obstacles people faced when dealing with the goals of racial equality. It shows how even the smallest of events can change the world, forcing audience members to reevaluate how they look at others and to see their own views in a whole new color.
In 1959, Clybourne Park was a prestigious middle-class white neighborhood - one of respectable society, but one household is plagued by a heinous tragedy that had occurred only a few years earlier. The owners of this house, Bev and Russ, have just closed the real-estate deal when the neighbors pop in to say goodbye; however, upon finding out that the family moving into the house is African-American, there is an uproar. Now along with trying to cope with their own tragedy, and already under the ever scrutinizing eyes of the neighbors, the family has to deal with the societal affects their sale is likely to have on the entire neighborhood. In Act II, it can be seen exactly what the first domino piece resulted in, not only for the house but for the entire community. It’s 2009 and now a white couple, Karl and Lindsey, want to remodel the home for their future family. The only problem is that the now African-American community that dominates Clybourne Park claims that the house cannot be changed because of its history. But, are the issues really about a historical building or are they about the underlying affects, as seen in 1959, which will occur in the neighborhood if a house is sold to the white family? Clybourne Park explores all of the possibilities and consequences the actions of these people can have on the community as a whole in this historical and beautifully written piece of literature.
The success of Clybourne Park depends almost entirely on each actor’s ability to create multiple, but completely distinct, and in many ways opposite characters. For the most part, the ensemble of seven pulled this off beautifully. The piece opens on a very aged and distressed father named Russ, played by Frank Wood (Side Man).Wood’s obvious distress over the tragedy that occurred and his inability to continue to live his life the way he has been makes the audience fall in love with this grandfather-like figure. His next character is so opposite to Russ that it is remarkable to think he is played by the same actor. Dan is a middle-aged construction worker with the uncanny ability to jump into the most intense moments at exactly the wrong time. His appearance always leaves the audience clutching their sides at his distracted banter and genuine cluelessness. Alongside Russ is his loving but somewhat ignorant wife, Bev. Played by Christina Kirk (Well), Bev is meant to be a tragic character that chooses to ignore the fact that her world has crumbled around her and that her husband is a senile old miserable man. Sadly the only tragedy was the lack of believability in Kirk’s character. From her wildly waving arms to her over exaggerated realizations, Kirk caused Bev to be completely un-relatable to the audience. Kirk had similar problems with her other character Kathy. Kathy’s role was the overly obnoxious and sarcastic L.A. style real-estate agent. Obnoxious was a good word for Kirk’s acting choices; every time she opened her mouth there would be an internal groan from the audience, begging for her silence. The white couple’s counterparts were Francine and Albert, played by Crystal A. Dickinson (Off-Broadway’s Ruined) and Damon Gupton (television’s Prime Suspect) respectively. They also played the roles of Lena and Kevin, a married couple trying to save a historical landmark in 2009. The dynamic between the two on stage was just plain amazing. They were by far the audience’s favorite couple in both acts. Between her bitter sarcastic comments and his charm, the audience was completely engrossed in their performances. They stood by each other in moments of need and in moments where they disagreed - the audience could almost feel the patronizing that can only come from a loved one. The bicker is actually what brought the entire couple act together. Helping to increase the drama going on in Clybourne Park is Brendan Griffin (Off-Broadway’s Bottom of the World). Griffin’s character, Jim, always acted like the peace-maker and always managed to gain the audience’s admiration. His other character, Tom, as usual, was the complete opposite; he was a cocky real-estate agent who couldn’t care less about what happened to his rental agreement. He also is the only cast member to play three people instead of two, and his last character is the most important. He plays the mysterious Kenneth that the household tragedy surrounds. All three are distinctly different in mannerisms and vocal tendencies. Griffin did a stupendous job in creating three opposite characters. The last couples to claim the stage are Betsy and Karl, Annie Parisse (Prelude to a Kiss) and Jeremy Shamos (Elling) respectively. Parisse’s performance as Betsy was approached with so much integrity and grace. It is very difficult to successfully convince audience members that a character has some sort of impediment, especially when the impediment involves losing one of the core senses humans rely on. Though mostly deaf, Betsy was still just aware enough of people’s body stances and the atmosphere of the room to know that something horrible was happening. Parisse made Betsy so believable and the relationship between Kirk and her was hysterical to watch. As Lindsey, the pregnant newly-wed, Parisse was an elegant young woman whose concerns about how other people view her and her family were very relatable to the audience. Concluding this astounding cast is Jeremy Shamos. First as the bigot, Karl, married to Parisse and neighbor to Kirk and Wood. The audience can’t help but hate his arrogant and degrading ways. Then as Steve, the passionate young man who sees the truth underlying Dickinson’s intentions. Shamos then manages to completely flip Steve’s actions and turn him inside out so that the audience can see that he is no better than Dickinson’s character. The cast does a wonderful job at creating believable, lovable and sometimes the necessarily dislikeable characters that are needed to make Clybourne Park such an astounding piece of theatre.
If the beauty of the sheer history isn’t what holds the audience’s interest, another reason to see Clybourne Park is the Scenic Designer’s, Daniel Ostling (Metamorphoses), amazing attention to detail. The world inside of and surrounding the house in 1959 is already so beautifully created that when the transformation into 2009 happens, the audience can hardly believe that it is the same place! But the attention given to the small details such as the placement of light switches and the wall paper and fireplace are so great that it really does look as if the house has aged fifty years. Helping to create the two very different worlds are costume designer Ilona Somogyi (Off-Broadway’s Regrets), lighting designer, Allen Lee Hughes (Having Our Say) and sound designer, John Gromada (the current Seminar). All can take claim to success with Clybourne Park because the believability of the actors was greatly helped along by the fact that their worlds were so distinctly defined and beautifully detailed.
Under the direction of Pam Mackinnon (Off-Broadway’s Completeness), the cast and crew really have an amazing piece on their hands. Theatre should force the audience to question themselves and the world surrounding them - to see the bigger picture. Clybourne Park is a fantastic reflection of society and the changes that have occurred in the last sixty years alone! It’s a wonderful addition to theatre and definitely worth every second of the audience’s time.
Review By: Tom Garvin
Review By: Tom Garvin