‘Clybourne Park’ Opens At Bratton Theater

CHAUTAUQUA – One of the most successful and most award-winning plays of the past decade opened this weekend at the Bratton Family Theater, for a run of performances through next Sunday.

“Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris won the Tony, the Pulitzer, the British Olivier, and dozens of other awards, in 2012. Its plot is built around a much earlier play, which won a similar list of awards: ”A Raisin in the Sun,” by Lorraine Hansberry. Only one character overlaps the two plays, and no understanding of the earlier play is necessary to appreciate this one, but both have a lot to teach us about the human heart, and the human mind.

The Hansberry play is the story of the Younger family, an African-American family in the 1950s, who have just come into a sum of money. The mother of the family undertakes to buy a house in the suburbs, where there is less crime, and her children and grandchildren can live in safety. The family is visited by a member of the neighborhood association of the white suburb who is worried that their moving in will result in a loss of property values, and who tries to pay them not to complete the contract for the house.

This play begins by introducing the family who sold their house in the suburbs to the Youngers. Russ and Bev have lost a son, in tragic circumstances. The same neighbors who don’t want the Youngers want Russ and Bev to give up the sale of their home “for the safety of the neighborhood,” yet those neighbors have talked behind their hands and coldly withdrawn from the couple in their grief.

There is a great deal of humor in the play, in addition to the drama, because the playwright invites the audience to see through the excuses and distorted arguments of all aspects of the play, and to feel that we would be more honest and truthful, although he slips in the occasional suggestion that we might not do so, either.

When we return from intermission, the time has changed from the 1950s to 2009. Now it is a white, professional family which wants to buy the same house in Clybourne Park, except they plan to destroy it and build a giant glass box of contemporary architecture with a fish pond and all the relating style fads, and it’s an African-American neighborhood association which wants to preserve the style and nature of the neighborhood.

While the new white owners and the African-American neighborhood representatives go through the pretenses of mutual respect and understanding, we become more and more clearly aware that the real issues are the same, merely represented by the opposite racial group.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Andrew Weems, as the original homeowner, breaks one’s heart at the depth of his pain and the frequency and the degree to which people unthinkingly make it worse. Marin Hinkle gave a solid performance as his wife, who, like most women of the 1950s was raised to be is eager to smooth everything over and prevent any noise or upset, no matter the cost.

Sean Dugan embraces his role as the villain of each half of the play, spouting hogwash arguments – old and new – even though he knows nobody believes him, including himself.

Stephen Spencer overplayed his role of the neighborhood priest in the first half, getting laughs at the expense of his character, but in the second half, though his character is so much more minor, the many laughs seem more natural and appropriate.

Tangela Large and Landon Woodson brought dignity and intellectual weight to their characters as the maid and her husband in the first half, and the outraged neighbors in the second.

Mary Wiseman was very funny as a naive deaf women who has no understanding of what people around her are saying, and she is very funny in a different direction as the very pregnant wife of the new property owners, who considers herself so very trendy.

Davis McCallum’s direction, Jason Simms’ sets, Matt Frey’s lighting, Jessica Pabst’s costumes, and Daniel Kluger’s sound design are all top notch. It’s an excellent production, well worth your attendance.