Reviewed by Sarah Lockwood
Once again, I am sitting down to write about a play that has been truly thought provoking. Wow, I thought, I’m going to have to come up with some other ways to say that this one made me think. That this one stirred something in my gut. That this one has me needing to talk, needing to continue the dialogue.
What’s the common thread here? The Second Presbyterian Church Acts of Faith Theatre Festival. This tenth annual season of the largest faith-based theatre festival in the United States includes eighteen productions from fifteen area shows. These shows illuminate issues and questions, encouraging community member to engage in meaningful dialogue.
Enter Clybourne Park, from Cadence Theatre Company in partnership with Virginia Rep.
Act I places us in 1959, in a bungalow on Clybourne street, where Bev and her black maid Francine are packing up the house. When friend Jim comes by to check on Bev’s husband Russ, it’s clear that the couple’s move is an escape from a tragic event. The living room fills up as Karl arrives with his wife to express grievances from the community board. Bev and Russ have carelessly allowed a black family to buy their house. Can you imagine what that will do to the property value?
The ensuring arguments are thick with stubborn segregationist values, laced with humorous interludes from Karl’s deaf and pregnant wife Betsy and oblivious Bev. As an audience, we gasped at the racist exclamations and at Karl’s insistence to hear from Francine and her husband Albert on the local grocery store carrying “their types of foods.” We’ve come a long way from this sort of mentality, surely.
But Act II has us questioning our own biases. In an amazing intermission set transition (kudos to scenic designer Phil Hayes), our adorable nostalgic bungalow becomes a dump. Covered in graffiti and littered with beer cans, it houses a conversation by our same seven actors, who are new characters fifty years later.
This time the tables are turned. A pregnant Lindsey and her husband Steve (Betsy and Karl from Act I) are demolishing the house to erect a glamorous house in the newly desirable neighborhood. Francine and Albert, now Lena and Kevin, have brought in lawyer Tom (Jim from Act I) to challenge the build due to the home’s historical value. The group carefully treads around the neighborhood’s history, searching for politically correct ways to discuss the changing demographics.
The conversation quickly degrades, however. It’s a question of racism, Steve concludes. He’s convinced that this black community is opposed to his family’s move because they’re white. And the degradation continues with an I’m-not-offended volley of racist jokes until a side comment hits a chord and the fits of uneasy laughter from the audience instantly become silent. I got chills.
Turns out, in fifty years the conversation has evolved, but racism persists.
This play has many layers. First of all, it addresses segregation, political correctness, deep biases, and gentrification head on. There’s no escaping the questions this performance raises.
I won’t even get into the tragedy that has prompted Russ and Bev’s move. That’s an intense layer you’ll have to see the show to appreciate.
Despite the serious themes, it’s hilarious. I mean shaking-and-trying-to-laugh-as-quietly-as-possibly-so-as-not-to-disturb-fellow-audience-members-in-this-tiny-theatre hilarious.
It’s also clever. Playwright Bruce Norris plants setups in Act I for some great jokes in Act II. The parallel actions and turns of phrases between the fifty-year break are witty and meaningful.
But this clever script, which has won numerous awards, truly flourishes under the direction of Keri Wormald. Each actor stole moments throughout, gracefully pulling our attention around the crowded stage. There was no transformation more impressive than McLean Jesse’s from a deaf pregnant woman (Betsy) to a loud annoying pregnant woman (Lindsey), though David Bridewater’s from lazy, depressed husband to filthy construction worker was quite hilarious. Mix in excellent comedic timing from Andrew Firda (Karl/Steve) and Katie McCall (Bev/Kathy) and the priceless facial expressions of Tyra D. Robinson (Francine/Lena), and this two-hour production flies by.
The show contains profane language, so use your discretion when bringing teenagers. Followed by discussion, though, this could be meaningful for as the younger crowd as long as they’re mature enough to know they can’t repeat the language. Learn from my mistake and arrive early to find parking – this is not a play you want to miss a minute of.
Clybourne Park runs through March 15 in the Theatre Gym at Virginia Rep Center.
For tickets, call (804)282-2620, or visit Virginia Repertory Theatre: Clybourne Park, 2014