Listening, understanding and a healthy dose of humor, if correctly used, can go a long way in addressing societal issues. At least that’s the perspective of Thalian Association’s latest production “Clybourne Park,” which opens with a special preview this Thursday, February 19 at Red Barn Studio Theatre in honor of Black History Month. Red Barn Studio Theatre may even permit future sneak-preview premieres. The play will debut on Thalian Hall’s Main Stage on March 19.
Having won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, “Clybourne Park” premiered Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2010. Written by Bruce Norris, the play was devised as a spinoff to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun,” which told the story of a black family’s struggles in a Chicago neighborhood. “Clybourne Park” subsequently opened on Broadway in 2012.
The play spans a half-century, and is loosely framed by real-life events that happened in Chicago. The play deals with racism, sexism and classism, among other hot-button issues, by exploring the changes that take place in the Clybourne Park neighborhood.
“Clybourne Park” is rooted in the notion, “Time heals all things,” yet proves it is not necessarily always true. Separated into two acts, which take place in 1959 and 2009 respectively, many of the same themes and struggles remain consistent throughout the production. Each of the actors will take on dual roles, playing different characters during the two acts.
“Somehow, Bruce Norris found a way to make these subject matters extremely comical,” director Joy Ducree Gregory says. “The audience will have an opportunity to not only laugh at the absurdity of all of the ‘isms’ and phobias, but will hopefully take an inward look at their own views.”
Act I details the experience of a grieving couple Bev and Russ, who lost their son to suicide. Things get hairy when an African American family try to buy their home, and the neighbors and community members begin beseeching them to back out on the deal.
Actress Jane McNeil, whose been featured on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” takes on the role of the multi-faceted Bev. Throughout the show she goes from being a light character, who pretends everything is in order, to having the world’s ugly truths come crashing down on her. “She goes from silly jokes to balling her eyes out to numbness,” McNeil tells.
The role of Bev’s husband, Russ, will be played by J.R. Rodriguez. “I can’t imagine the pain he must feel,” Rodriguez describes. “I hope I’m being respectful to him. His love for his family is overshadowed by his grief. The problem is, he never released it. I want to find the humanity in the man.”
Act II takes place in the same home, which is now being sought out by Steve and Lindsay, a white couple who plan to buy and replace the home. “The play ends in a way that poignantly illustrates not much has changed,” Gregory tells. “One actor, Timothy [Rizor], pointed out during rehearsal that no one in this play listens to each other.”
Rizor, who plays Steve and Karl, notes that his characters fall into the trope of being intelligent bigots. “Their prejudices are based on logic and reason, however warped the logic may be,” he elaborates. “They perceive themselves to be smarter than the issue, and other considerations (community, property values) keep them from realizing their own racial biases.”
Rizor’s characters unfortunately never achieve an arc; instead, they become more steadfast in their beliefs. Conversely, Jake Huber will play Jim and Tom. While his character Jim attempts to bridge the gaps between the characters to a staggering degree, Tom becomes more and more affected by casual racism and attempts to further the conversation.
“I have never been one to allow mistreatment to happen right in front of me,” Huber says. “It has been difficult to stay internally calm during the show’s heated moments, and not react at some of the more venomous moments. Sometimes my character [Jim] even facilitates racism, which is deeply troubling.”
Steph Meyer, who takes on the role of the often-ignored, deaf Betsy and the image-obsessed Lindsay, has grappled with her characters, too. “Betsy is interesting to me because, while she’s often overlooked, she is more in tune to things and nuances than the people around her realize,” Meyer tells. By contrast, Lindsay finds herself alienated because of her staunch will to adhere to a certain lifestyle. However, Meyer also has had to bring to life the complexities of Lindsay’s loving side.
Terri Collins is in charge of set design, which mainly consists of the Clybourne Park house. Selina Harvey will be taking on costuming. “Clybourne Park” opens this week, and is sure to give plenty food for thought.
Red Barn Studio Theatre
1122 S. 3rd Street • (910) 762-0955
Thurs..-Sun., Feb. 19- Mar. 1, 7:30 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.