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Theater Review: "Clybourne Park" at Geva 

The sequel of sorts to "A Raisin in the Sun" continues the challenging, but worthwhile, discussion on race in America

Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" has been a classic American play since it debuted in 1959, frequently revived and adapted to film. Bruce Norris's 2009 "Clybourne Park" is a kind of sequel to "Raisin," and the only play to win London's Olivier Award as well as a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. So it was inevitable that we would soon see it at Geva, where it was -- for me at least -- the most anticipated show of the 2013-14 season.

"Clybourne Park" takes up where "A Raisin in the Sun" leaves off, kind of, and moves way beyond it. In the first act, we see a white couple, Russ and Bev (Skip Greer and Roya Shanks), in the last stages of packing to leave their house on Clybourne Street in Chicago -- the house that the Younger family from "Raisin" will soon occupy, though the current owners don't know it yet. Russ and Bev are being helped in their move by black neighbors (Kristin Adele and Daniel Morgan Shelley), and hindered by an ineffectual minister (Jim Poulos) and by the director of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, Karl Lindner (Christian Pedersen).

click to enlarge Clybourne Park
  • Kristen Adele, Roya Shanks, and Daniel Morgan Shelley (left to right) in "Clybourne Park," now on stage at Geva Theatre.

Lindner has just come from Hansberry's play, so to speak. He announces that he has just made a counter-offer to the Youngers to keep them away from buying the house. He also brings his young, very pregnant wife (Jessica Kitchens), who happens to be deaf. In addition to showing the various characters' reaction to the news, Norris invents a reason for the initial low down payment for the house (which I will not divulge here).

Act Two takes place 50 years later in the same, much dilapidated space; the Youngers are long gone. After a period of decay, Clybourne Park is in the process of regentrifying, and a young white couple (also played by Pedersen and Kitchens) wants to level the house and build a new one. The roadblock is, once again, the neighborhood association, this time represented by a successful black couple (Adele and Shelley), and with a couple of lawyers thrown into the mix (Poulos and Shanks). Greer plays a construction worker who finds a buried trunk in the yard dating back to the original owners, which brings "Clybourne Park" full circle.

The play sounds like it has a neat ending, but Norris's clever updating deliberately keeps things inconclusive. He mainly wants to raise pointed questions about race relations, class relations, our attitudes toward anyone "different," and the inability of even the most intelligent, best-intentioned people to discuss any of the above without misspeaking, misunderstanding, and arguing.

The characters in "Clybourne Park" are marvels of inarticulateness and inappropriateness. They repeat themselves constantly, interrupt each other (and often interrupt themselves), erupt in frustration, tell shockingly bad jokes about "big black men" and tampons, and nervously tiptoe around the obvious questions. The "Raisin in the Sun" parallel could have been a gimmick, but Norris extends that play's concerns into our time very clearly and entertainingly. He doesn't have the answers, but he knows how to ask the questions with style.

Mark Cuddy directs the Geva cast with great verve and sensitivity to the rhythms of Norris's language: those stuttering repetitions really mean something. All the cast members do a fine job at changing from their 1959 characters to their 2009 equivalents, especially Skip Greer, who plays a grieving, inarticulate father in the first act and a cheerfully noisy construction worker in the second. Similarly, Roya Shanks delivers a June Cleaver-esque mother revealing depths of despair in the first act, and a snarky lawyer in the second. Pedersen is wonderfully dislikable in both acts, as Mr. Lindner (the single character held over from Hansberry's play) and as a tall order of yuppie scum on white bread in the second.

The playwright is quoted is the program as saying, "My ideal audience response is to have them come out of the theatre saying, 'I don't know what's right anymore. I used to think I knew what was right, but I'm not sure that I do.'" "Clybourne Park" is an inconclusive play, but it is an honest one, and it is a funny and powerful work of theater. It is absolutely worth seeing -- and discussing afterward.

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