Clybourne Park, 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA
Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Photos by Eric Chazankin
Stunning Cast and Director Hit ‘Clybourne’ Out of the Park
With the winning combination of a Pulitzer Prize-winning script, a visionary director and a superb cast, “Clybourne Park” at 6th Street Playhouse was certainly destined to be pretty good. But there is an almost mystic alchemy at work here in what may be the best show in the North Bay.
Playwright Bruce Norris won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Clybourne Park” in 2011, and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012. Norris was inspired by characters and events in the 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun”, and his play can be seen as a companion piece, but it stands powerfully on its own. With a uniquely deft touch, Norris explores the dark side of human nature and the different forms that discrimination and prejudice can take. Hot-button social issues like civil rights, racism, family loyalty and gentrification are tackled head-on. Filled with biting humor and sarcasm, awkwardly hilarious at times, the dialogue crackles and flows like an electric current.
The story takes place in a house in a Chicago neighborhood called Clybourne Park, over two acts that are bookends to a half-century span, with a lifetime of world-changing events happening in between. Each actor in the brilliant cast of seven has a dual role, one for each of the two acts. The roles and events in each act are in sharp contrast, but there are threads that unite the two halves: Both acts open at 3:30 in the afternoon…someone is being discouraged from selling the house to “the wrong people”…the clock strikes four…phone calls are taken…a character is pregnant …an army trunk makes an appearance…members of the neighborhood association meet…tensions grow into a volcanic explosion…common elements that interweave and tie the acts together in the most graceful, engaging way. The catalyst is a Korean War vet’s suicide that haunts the play from beginning to end.
Act I is set in pre-civil rights 1959. It begins with Bev (Jill Zimmerman) and her husband Russ (Mike Pavone), in the midst of packing up and moving from their longtime home, and mourning the recent loss of their son, Kenneth. Russ is nearly paralyzed by grief, with rage simmering just below the surface. Bev is masking her feelings and at the same time trying to be of some comfort to Russ. Their black maid Francine (Serena Flores) is on hand to assist, and her husband Albert (Dorian Lockett) arrives to pick her up. Kindly minister Jim (Chris Ginesi), who’s also a family friend, pays a visit to offer solace. All seems well until Karl (Jeff Cote), a member of their neighborhood association, drops by with his very pregnant wife Betsy (Melissa Claire), who is also deaf. Karl is on a mission: To get Bev and Russ to back out of the sale of their home to the “colored” family that bought it (the Youngers in “A Raisin in the Sun”). The neighbors, all white, fear that a black family will cause their property values to plummet. Russ and Bev call upon the hapless Francine and Albert to weigh in. There are razor-sharp exchanges and some outrageous jokes, and an enraged Russ finally throws Karl and Betsy out. The act closes with a spotlight on Bev, a tear shining on her face, a moment of breathtaking artistry by Zimmerman.
Act II finds a very tense neighborhood association meeting in progress. It’s now 2009, in the same Clybourne Park house. Social and cultural revolutions have come and gone over the past 50 years, the neighbors have changed from white to black, but the house still stands, though a bit worse for wear with gaping holes in the walls and trash strewn over the floor. The new owners – a very pregnant Lindsey (Claire) and husband Steve (Cote), who are white – want to tear the dilapidated house down and build a much larger one in its place. Present is their lawyer, Karl and Betsy’s daughter Kathy (Zimmerman). A descendant of the Youngers, Lena (Flores), is there with her husband Kevin (Lockett) to represent the association. Tom (Ginesi) is running the discussion, and it’s not going well. The neighbors claim that they object to the new house because of its size, but Lindsey and Steve suggest it’s really just thinly-veiled racial prejudice. More razor-sharp exchanges and even more outrageous jokes, and more volcanic explosions of temper. A brash and funny contractor named Dan (Pavone) walks in and begins to describe what he found while digging outside. It turns out he has uncovered the sad heart of the story that began 50 years earlier. The light changes, time travels back to 1959 again, and Kenneth has the last word. It’s an exquisite ending to a compelling show and tour-de-force ensemble performance.
Each and every actor in “Clybourne Park” is performing at the highest level one could hope to see on any stage, giving remarkable gifts to the audience: Zimmerman (winner of the SFBATCC Award for Best Actress for “August: Osage County”) through her controlled emotional build and sensitivity; Pavone’s fearless revelation of rage and sorrow; Cote’s relentless comic agility; Ginesi with his warm honesty and naturalism; Flores’s striking versatility and discipline; Lockett and his magnetic yet subtle delivery; Claire (a 3-time SFBATCC nominee) and her lively, irresistible characterizations.
Crafting of the set was placed in the capable hands of noted area set designer Ronald Krempetz, who deserves special mention. As Resident Set Designer and Instructor at College of Marin Kentfield, he has designed sets for hundreds of productions at the college and around the Bay Area, including the San Francisco Ballet and Marin Theatre Company. Kudos is also due to Tracy Sigrist for her superb costume design, as well as Theo Bridant’s excellent work on lighting.
When asked what first drew him to the play, director Carl Jordan said it was its sheer complexity, and that he approached the script much like a musical score to be conducted. Jordan has also won awards from SFBATCC, for directing and choreography. Through his guidance and perfect casting, each actor wears their dual roles like a pair of comfortable shoes, walking around in them very naturally. This lends an air of authenticity and realism throughout. A rich and profoundly moving experience, “Clybourne Park” is a roller-coaster of a show that will leave you breathless.
When: Now through January 25, 2015
8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
8:00 p.m. Thursday, January 22
2:00 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Tickets: $15 to $32
Location: GK Hardt Theater at 6th Street Playhouse
52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA