Reviewed by Tom Lawler
Is Chicago a suitable place to live, prosper and raise your family? This is a good question, and it depends where you live. It is this “separate but unequal” universe of segregated Chicago neighborhoods that Lorraine Hansberry explored in her 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Raisin in the Sun, and in many ways little has changed 50 years later in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, a sly companion piece penned in 2010 that snagged a Pulitzer of its own.
The first act of Clybourne Park, which makes its Chicago storefront debut at Redtwist in a bracing production helmed by Steve Scott, is set in this same late 1950s time period and location just prior to the events of A Raisin the Sun. The play opens with a middle-aged white couple and their African-American domestic boxing up their household before leaving their South Side home in favor of the suburbs. They seem to be less booking a white flight out of town then cutting the cord to a community that turned its back on them after a family tragedy.
Norris seems to be meandering a bit in these opening moments as we meet Russ and Bev (a rock-solid Brian Parry and Jan Ellen Graves) , but as these conflicts develop we realize seeds of subtext and theme are being planted for later uprooting in a rollicking Act II. We often don’t talk about what’s really on our mind and when do try to express ourselves, no one listens. This is deftly dramatized as Russ catches grief from his neighbors — notably Karl Linder, a tertiary character from Raisin, who strongly objects to Russ selling the house to an African-American family. Between talking over each other, the visiting clergyman (an unctuous Michael Sherwin) or having to translate to Karl’s deaf wife, Betsy (Carley Mosely), much is said and very little is understood.
The script is flipped in Act II as the action shifts forward 50 years and a young, affluent white couple is planning to move into this South Side house from the suburbs. The actors from Act I all return in new roles, and Kelly Owens and Frank Pete shine as the African-American couple representing the homeowner’s association with concerns about renovations the new couple is planning for their historic home and a coming wave of gentrification. The white couple sees their counterparts as unnecessary obstacles to progress and reminders of a less desirable era. Can these two couples really bridge their differences and live together in unity? Does racial segregation still exist in Chicago? Do we really want to confront race and try to change this?
No one talks about this, of course. They talk about a mutual friend at work, traveling in Europe, obscure world capitals – and even share a dirty joke as racial tensions begin to simmer.
There is a lot of cross-talk and shouting in Clybourne Park – all of it staged within inches of the audience, so it’s very much to Scott’s credit that the audience doesn’t feel overwhelmed by the volume of these arguments. The director and this crack cast also expertly ratchet up the tension so that when Norris’ often witty script zings us, we explode in laughter, grateful for the temporary relief.
If you’re still reading this review at this point, perhaps you missed Clybourne Park when it played at Steppenwolf in 2011 and are wondering if you should still check it out? Should you see a provocative and uproarious entertainment set in our city and splendidly produced by one of our finest storefront theaters? Is Chicago a suitable place to live, prosper and raise your family?
These are all good questions.
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission.
At Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr
Written by: Bruce Norris
Directed by: Steve Scott
Thurs-Sat, 7:30pm, Sun at 3pm
Through Nov 10
Buy tickets at 773-728-7529 or online at redtwist.org
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Photo by: Kimberly Loughlin