review: clybourne park

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Clybourne Park

by Bruce Norris
Directed by Amy Morton
Featuring James Vincent Meredith, Karen Aldridge, John Judd
Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted
September 8, 2011 — November 13, 2011
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 9, 2011

(L-R) Cliff Chamberlain, Kristen Fitzgerald, Brendan Marshall Rashid, Stephanie Childers, Karen Aldridge. Image by Michael Brosilow.

The Chicago Way*, part two.  A return to Steppenwolf Theatre, location of many pleasurable hours spent in conversation, in revelation, in audience participation over the years, and return to a play I thrilled to in production at DC’s Woolly Mammouth Theatre in April 2010.  My time with this Chicago cast, helmed by director Amy Morton, during the final week of their run, reinforces both my appreciation of this play and the magic that Ms. Morton, this cast (including some of my favorite actors in the world), and ensemble-focused, gently-crafted, choreographed, believable theatre can provide.

In our first act an all-white neighborhood is about to change with an African-American family’s purchase of a home within its borders.  Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry‘s life experience and her play A Raisin in the Sun based upon those events, this 1959 act introduces us to parents Russ (John Judd) and Bev (Kirsten Fitzgerald) who are selling their home to start life anew in another Chicago neighborhood. Their domestic Francine (Karen Aldridge) navigates enduring final days of balancing the subtle racism of her employment situations with her more straight-talking husband Albert (James Vincent Meredith) comes to retrieve her at the end of her work day.  Parish priest Jim (Brendan Marshall-Rashid) stops by to assist Karl (Cliff Chamberlain), member of the homeowner’s association who has paid a visit to the new African-American purchasers of the property to offer to buy them out (our specific character link to Raisin‘s plot). Karl’s very pregnant wife Betsy (Stephanie Childers) is present, waiting, oblivious, loving., and deaf.  Act Two 50 years later re-sorts the roles of dominant class and culture and each actor takes on a different mantle, a different role, a different degree of power, and joins the conversational dance from a different position — domestic becomes homeowner, mourning father becomes workman, and the ghost of the deceased war veteran visits and communicates across the generations through letters left behind.

Todd Rosenthal‘s set gives us solid turn of the last century craftsmanship in Act One and a house with good bones that has slipped into disarray (complete with graffiti-ed walls) in Act Two.  We see and feel the need to reconstruct or raze the structure in 2009, which brings into sharp relief the historical district concerns of the contemporary community visitors to the new homeowners.

The mastery of playwright Bruce Norris‘s script is that no character is uni-dimensional, no motivation unexplored —  or at least all motivations are sufficiently explored to create a stage full of believable human beings.  This play inspired by a Chicago story filtered through the Chicago experience in the hands of Chicago theatre artists gives us again: magic.

* The Chicago Way — neither bloviating politicians nor graft-infested shenanigans but a specific theatrical sensibility: preference for ensemble rather than showboating, specificity and clarity and intensity with purpose.  [I’m perfecting this concept now.]

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 14, 2011)

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