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Clybourne Park (Santa Rosa)

“Well… That was not at ALL what I was expecting!” – statement from an audience member at the conclusion of the opening night performance of 6th Street Playhouse’s production of Clybourne Park.

What was she expecting?  I’ll tell you at the end this review. What I will say is that it wasn’t a statement of complaint.  It was more a statement of surprise and appreciation for seeing something decidedly different than the usual offerings that occupy the stage of the G.K. Hardt Theatre.  How different?

Well, excluding the obvious (no music), Clybourne Park is a play that addresses issues of race, class, religion, mobility, traditional gender roles, war, history and “progress”. It does it with deep drama. It does it with dark comedy. It’s really two plays in one, with the first act re-envisioning Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama “A Raisin in the Sun” (about a black family buying a house in a white neighborhood) by changing the perspective to the white family that is selling the house.  The second act takes place in the same house, but 50 years later, and the neighborhood that once struggled with the issue of integration now struggles with the issue of gentrification.

Melissa Claire, Jill Zimmerman, Mike Pavone, Jeff Coté, Serena Flores, Dorian Lockett, Chris Ginesi

Director Carl Jordan has gathered a cast of strong bay area performers and tasked each of them with meeting playwright Bruce Norris’s challenge of playing two, and in one case, three distinctive characters from different eras. The first act feels as if it were written in the 50’s, with Mike Pavone and Jill Zimmerman as Russ and Bev, two Ozzie and Harriet-types with severe issues, Serena Elize Flores as Lena, the deferential domestic, Dorian Lockett as Albert, her hard working and accommodating husband, Chris Ginesi as Jim, the community’s unctuous minister, Jeff Coté as Karl, the neighborhood blow-hard, and Melissa Claire as Betsy, his expectant wife.  The neighborhood is not pleased with Russ’s decision to sell to a black family for, of course, all the right reasons. The ‘friendly’ neighborhood conversation slowly bubbles up to a boil culminating in a taut denouement and intermission.

An audience that might take some comfort in the belief that what they just witnessed was a period piece (because surely things have gotten better in the last fifty years) probably shouldn’t.  As Act II begins, we quickly note that the action is set in the same house, now barely recognizable in its dilapidated and graffiti-strewn state.  It’s been bought by a well-off suburban couple (Coté, Claire) who’ve brought along a contractor (Pavone) to assist with their big plans for renovation or demolition. A couple with some history with the neighborhood (Lockett, Flores) has some issues with the plans. The meeting with a representative of the Neighborhood Association (Ginesi) and the purchaser’s lawyer (Zimmerman) soon devolves into a blistering debate on prejudice, privilege and political correctness. The act’s penultimate scene is both hilarious and cringe-inducing as a series of racial jokes are tossed about like hand grenades, leading to the inevitable human explosion.

Mike Pavone, Chris Ginesi, Dorian Lockett, Serena Flores, Melissa Claire, Jeff Coté, Jill Zimmerman

This is a terrific show.  A brilliant, provocative Pulitzer Prize-winning script that balances jet-black humor with genuine human emotion, vibrant performances from a cast that bring shades of difference to characters that represent the lack of societal change, and a set design by Ron Krempetz and Scenic Artist Phoenix Ritchie whose detail almost makes it an additional character all come together under the balls-out direction of Carl Jordan to present to local audiences a very different and exceedingly welcome main stage production. Credit should also be given to 6th Street’s Artistic Director Craig Miller for his persistence in seeking the rights to mount a production of this show and for placing it in the hands of the artists involved.

So what was that opening night patron expecting to see?

“I thought it would be something set at an English Manor. You know, like Downton Abbey?!”

Here’s to more theatre companies taking their audiences to unexpected places…

Clybourne Park

through January 25

Thurs/Fri/Sat @ 8pm  Sat/Sun @2pm

6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
(707) 523-4185

Photos by Eric Chazankin

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