PlayMakers Repertory Company is unafraid to tackle big issues, issues that are polarizing, issues which make audiences uncomfortable. The magic of PlayMakers is their ability to tackle those issues while showing their respect for the intelligence of the audience and trusting audiences to understand the value of taking risks in the theater. This has never been so true as with Clybourne Park.
Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park tells two different stories in the same house. The house in question is the very one which the Younger family purchased in A Raisin in the Sun, which is playing in rotating repertory with Clybourne Park. The first act takes place in the late 1950s, and tells the story of the family who is moving out, who have their own set of struggles, and the reaction of the neighbors to the fact that an African American family is moving in - most specifically the strong reaction of Karl Lindner (who plays a role in A Raisin in the Sun). The second act takes place in the very same house in the present - the neighborhood is now largely African American, and there are tensions when a white couple wants to make big changes to the house.
Having had the opportunity to see this play during its Tony-winning run in 2012, I can say without hesitation that this production is comparable to that Broadway production. Although I have some serious concerns with the writing in regard to a deaf character whose primary purpose is to be joked about (the very way the lines are written in the script is already too far across the line for my liking), overall the message of the play is clear: race is an uncomfortable topic, but it cannot be avoided. Aside from the one exception of the deaf character, Betsy (though credit is due to actress Kelsey Didion who deepens the role beyond what is written on the page), the writing is smart, witty, on-point. The topic of race is approached in a no-holds-barred way that encourages critical reflection.
The cast is great as a whole, with some noticeable standouts. Two gentlemen in particular, playing very different characters, were outstanding: Nilan Johnson as Albert/Kevin and Matt Garner as Karl/StevE. Johnson's Albert, though a smaller role, is relatable, but he shines as Kevin, who wants everyone to get along and get on with their lives. Johnson is able to elicit laughs amid uncomfortable scenes and provide a level of sanity to tense situations. Matt Garner has the task of playing perhaps two of the least likable characters in modern theater, but he manages to create real people who are multi-faceted and interesting, if not high on anyone's list of potential friends.
A particularly interesting element, which correlates to the radio interview with Lorraine Hansberry which plays intermittently throughout Playmakers' production of A Raisin in the Sun, is the use of radio in Clybourne Park. If you can avoid stepping away during intermission, then seize the opportunity to experience the passage of time through radio programming. In addition to some mood-setting music before the first act, the radio plays throughout intermission and includes important moments in time between about 1960 and the present. These events range from the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the election of Barack Obama - mostly events which are relevant to the state of race relations in this country.
Clybourne Park, in rotating repertory with A Raisin in the Sun, runs through March 2. For tickets and more information, visit www.playmakersrep.org.
Photo credit: Jon Gardiner