Stellar Production Runs One Last Weekend: ‘Clybourne Park’ will astound with applaudable acting, great script
Thalian Association’s second show of the season, “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris, can only be described as remarkable. Under the direction of Joy Gregory, the show previewed for two weekends at the intimate Red Barn Studio. This weekend it moves to the main stage of Thalian Hall for a final run.
Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning script opens in 1959 (the year that “Raisin in the Sun” debuted on Broadway), in the living room of the house that the Younger family has purchased in the white neighborhood, Clybourne Park. Mere hours after Karl Linder leaves the Younger’s apartment, we meet the sellers of the home that family matriarch Lena is planning to move the family to. Russ (J.R. Rodriguez), Bev (Jane McNeill) and their maid, Francine (Katrina Hargrave), are packing up to move on Monday.
Rodriguez and McNeil have the patter and timing of a long married couple. They have run out of things to talk about, but they still want to reach out to each other. Moving is always stressful, but there is something else lurking beneath the surface here, and these two are not in a hurry to let us in on their secret. Why should they be? It’s the only thing either of them can think about all day long. It’s why they are moving, and when pushed against the wall by their neighbors, it erupts in scorching pain.
The neighbors, Karl and Betsy Lindner (Timothy Rizor and Stephanie Grace Meyer), like all people, believe they mean well and are heroes. However, their actions and follow-through can be deeply unsettling. Rizor, especially, perfects the creepy, ferret-like nastiness that makes one want to punch him in the face. His interrogation of Francine and her husband, Albert (Robert Smith III), surpasses insensitive at the instigation, rounds the bend on selfish, and shoots past sadistic at 90 miles per hour.
Act II takes place in the same house in 2009, with the same cast playing different roles. Rizor and Meyer are now a young pregnant couple who have bought the house and are looking to tear it down to build a larger house. Smith and Hargrave play their new neighbors who have filed a petition with the planning and zoning people to stop the construction. Both are accompanied by their lawyers, who fail to keep the four from blowing a discussion about architecture into a battle over the current and historic experiences of racism. No one leaves unscathed (including the lawyers played by McNeill and Jake Huber). Frankly, it is hard to believe these people are going to go forward with the move (let alone not divorce each other).
This is the kind of script that appeals to actors: It gives them an opportunity to show range within two very different acts, and it pushes them to take each other and the audience into uncharted territory emotionally. I haven’t had the privilege of seeing several of these performers before. Hargrave was new to me; though, I hope her expressive face and thoughtful voice become known to the larger theatre-going audience. Meyer and McNeill, as the bookend mothers inhabiting this house, are as diametrically opposed as 50 years can be for women. Just the self-confidence that Meyer projects would be unimaginable for McNeill’s Bev. Bev’s only defense, or offense, is to cry and retreat. That is but one example of the different worlds of these women, which the actresses, along with Gregory, have created. Individually, these ladies turn in remarkable performances; as a trio, they are an absolute powerhouse of sociological and psychological changes played out before the audience’s eyes.
This is the best work I have seen Smith do. Between the two men he brings to life, he’s emerging as a performer who is finally being allowed to take time to work with the material instead of playing a caricature. His characters are juxtaposed against Rodriguez, who is first a miserable but successful business man and then a laborer. Rodriguez convinces as the man who has loved too much: both his son and his wife. He no longer knows how to make it through each day, and that hangs on him, not like a cloud but a shroud. No stranger to Wilmington theatre-goers, Rodriguez is a talented performer, but, truly, this script has given him material worthy of his craft.
Terry Collins remains one of the unrecognized gems of our part of the world. His set for Clybourne Park does not disappoint. At intermission the house transforms from a newish, well-loved home to an older, neglected property in need of restoration—easily one that someone could choose to bulldoze instead of repair. That’s a tall order in a theatre the size of the Red Barn which has no fly gallery or backstage storage space. With the move to Thalian Hall the show certainly will change. The Red Barn is a small and in many ways epitomizes the issues addressed in the play. Red Barn was a part of Steve Bakunas and Linda Lavin’s former restoration project, located on a block that had been largely ignored for many years. The couple renovated that property, as well as several others in the immediate vicinity and created a park. By contrast Thalian Hall has projected a certain opulence and grandeur from its birth. The main stage currently seats 546 people between the parquet and balcony. The Red Barn tops out at around 60 seats. I sat in the front row and was less than 8 feet from McNeill when she began crying. It took tremendous restraint not to try to hug her. The move to Thalian will provide the opportunity for a larger audience to see this remarkable and deserving show. Perhaps having a little distance from the intensity of the action might create a greater sense of removal and protection.
At the heart of this play is the notion that hiding form things that upset us does not solve problems or make them go away. Parts of Hargrave’s short monologue in Act II echoes Herb McDuffie’s concerns regarding the redevelopment of Taylor Homes in the early aughts. The story of white flight and gentrification, with an aim to property enhancement beyond current residents’ means, are tales that are very much a fabric of this city. This is a timely show that doesn’t point a finger at a single person but rather asks questions of all. The script is intricate, subtle, superbly crafted, and completely deserving of the Pulitzer, Tony and Olivier awards it received. However, without a director and a cast to bring it to life, it would not have near the power and impact it does. (For example: I have seen four pretty mediocre productions of “The Tempest,” which has a knock-out script). From casting to visuals, the groundwork of non-verbal communication, to the very subtle power shifts that sell the crescendo of each act, Gregory’s deft touch works with this ensemble to create something truly greater than the sum of its parts. This cast hits all the notes and doesn’t ignore the subtle building blocks that feed on each other to create larger foundations of the work. It is the best show I’ve seen this year. If you are going to pick one to go see this weekend, make it this one. It will not disappoint.
Thalian Hall, 310 Chestnut St.
Thurs.-Sun., March 19-22 7:30 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.