Playwright Bruce Norris has written a real gem with his work Clybourne Park. This is a wonderfully clever and often hilarious work that looks at racism from two different angles, each represented in acts that take place in the past and in the present, respectively. The current production by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is simply perfect, with expert direction and a fabulous cast. This is absolutely must-see theatre, and one, I dare say, that may have you coming back for repeat business.
The play's two acts tackle different eras in Clybourne Park. When we first encounter this lovely little house (terrific scenic design by Scott C. Neale), it's 1959 and a couple is preparing to move out. They're a troubled couple, with the husband still in a deep state of depression over the suicide of his soldier son. Their problem, at least with their neighbors, is that the realtor has sold the house to an African American couple. It is 1959, after all.
The second act brings us into the present. Here a white couple is attempting to buy and demolish the rundown shell of this same house in Clybourne Park. But, they're meeting with opposition from a black couple who want to maintain the community's “look”, even though their real feelings go much deeper. Together, these acts may us take a hard look at racism, and though things may be better for minorities today, there are still seeds of doubt lingering that can blossom when the right strings are pulled on either side of the fence.
The cast is superb with each actor pulling a double (and in one case, triple) role that allows them to stretch nicely. Mark Anderson Phillips gives a grave and disturbed turn as Russ, part of the couple whose son has died. He nearly comes undone when neighbors and a priest arrive to try and make them reconsider their realtor's choice of occupants. He's also good in the second act as a kind of goofy construction worker who has a habit of interrupting discussions at the wrong time. Nancy Bell does excellent work as the concerned wife of Russ, and also as a member of the family's team in the second act. Michael James Reed is a loud-mouthed (contrasted nicely with his deaf wife played by Shanara Gabrielle) bigoted neighbor, who drags in Russ and Bev's maid Francine and husband Albert, when he wants to make some wrong-headed comparisons about blacks and whites. He's also over the top as Steve, the thick headed one of a pair trying to buy the house in the present. Shanara Gabrielle is electric as his wife Lindsey, and she tries mightily to undo the damage that Steve's running mouth causes. Tanesha Gray and Chauncy Thomas are great as Francine and Albert, but they really get a chance to shine as representatives of the community during the second act. Eric Gild also lends support in three key roles.
Timothy Near's direction is very well done, and these actors have been let loose with their characterizations in a way that's really gripping. The laughs are well timed, but the drama is present as well. It's a superior balance rarely felt in the theatre. Lou Bird's costumes fit each era represented, and Ann G. Wrighton's lighting is matched nicely to the mood of the action taking place. As mentioned before, Scott C. Neale's set is also top notch, and the urban decay that the house experiences over the years has a realistic feel to it in the second act.
Don't miss the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis's production of Clybourne Park. It continues through November 18, 2012 at the Loretto-Hilton in the studio theatre.