“Clybourne Park” won the Pulitzer Prize, and it’s easy to see why. A masterfully written play by Bruce Norris, it skewers Americans’ attitudes toward race and class and creates characters that we can all recognize. Besides that, it’s both entertaining and moving as it leaves us with some hard questions.
The first act takes place in 1959, when Russ and Bev, reeling from the tragic death of their son as a result of the war in Korea, are preparing to move from their house in Clybourne Park, a middle-class white Chicago neighborhood. They are being visited by a wimpy minister when they are confronted by Karl, an angry Rotarian, with his pregnant, deaf wife Betsy. Karl is irate to have found that Russ has sold his house to a black family. In those days they debate whether the terminology should be “colored” or “Negro.” Bev’s black maid, Francine, and her husband, Albert, get caught up in the melee.
Today, the stereotypes and assumptions about racial differences seem absurd and even funny — such as black people eat different food and don’t ski — but many of us remember the era.
The second act takes place in the present in the same house with the same actors playing different characters, and the racism working in reverse. Clybourne Park has become a mostly African-American neighborhood, and a young white couple is set to raze the house and build one larger and 15 feet taller. Neighbors are meeting to design a petition to set guidelines for development that would preclude those plans. Both cases rest on the fear of change, that the status quo is being challenged.
The play is billed as a comedy, but it’s an abrasive sort of comedy, with the characters firing witty but sharp barbs at each other. Director Mark Booher has cast first-string PCPA actors, and each personality is well-defined. Karl is played by Andrew Philpot as a hotheaded, bigoted and clueless guy. He would be best described by a word that can’t be printed in a family newspaper, and in the second act his name is Steve, but he’s the same (expletive deleted). Karin Hendricks plays his wife, pregnant in both acts, but vociferous and abashed at her husband’s actions in the second.
Elizabeth Stuart is excellent as Bev, a sweet but prattling housewife, worried about her husband’s depression over their son’s death and the most open-minded as far as prejudice is concerned. Peter S. Hadres is sympathetic as husband Russ, who throws everyone out of his house. In the scene in the present, Stuart is Kathy, a savvy attorney and apparently the daughter born between the first and second act to Karl and his wife.
Cara Ricketts plays two quite different characters who represent the African-American woman then and now. As Francine, Bev’s maid, she is subservient and noncommital. As Lena, a proponent for the neighborhood where she grew up, she is strong and outspoken. Ryan Vincent Anderson is her husband both times, sarcastic and repressed as Albert in the first instance, cool and confident as Kevin 50 years later.
Michael Jenkinson is Jim, an uncomfortable neighbor and minister trying not to take sides. In the second act he is a young man with a secret of his own.
This is a provocative play, humorous with a sad note, and ultimately disturbing. It’s not just about race, but about changing values and the seeming impossibility of positive interaction. It illustrates the old cliché that the more things change the more they stay the same. And as an insightful study of human nature, Shakespeare had it right when he wrote “What fools these mortals be.”
IF YOU GO
7 p.m. today, Fridays and Saturdays and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays (except Sept. 14), Sundays and Wednesdays through Sept. 29
Severson Theatre, Allan Hancock College, Santa Maria
$15.50 to $32.50
922-8313 or www.pcpa.org