Tuesday, October 30, 2012

CLYBOURNE PARK • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (Studio Theatre)

Anytime anyone says in a voice laced with anxiety, "Did you see the family moving in next door?", you always have an idea of where it's gonna go, right?  You know what I'm talking about.  White flight, gentrification, redlining -- they all have one thing in common -- race and housing.  This is the topic that dominates Bruce Norris' Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play, now receiving a searing production at the Rep's Studio Theatre.  Written in 2010, it's an extension of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, picking up where it left off.

In the first act, it's 1959 and Bev (Nancy Bell) and Russ (Mark Anderson Phillips) are packing up the house preparing for their move out of Clybourne Park, a middle-class Chicago neighborhood.  The act starts slowly, but lays down clean strokes introducing one of the central families.  They eventually get a visit from Jim, their local priest (Eric Gilde), who is gently pushed by Bev to have a talk with Russ.  The reason remains a bit of a mystery for now, but Jim doesn't get too far, anyway.  Then a Rotary Club associate, and head of the neighborhood association, Karl (Michael James Reed) and his pregnant wife Betsy (Shanara Gabrielle) drop by.  Karl is agitated because he has learned that the buyers for Russ and Bev's house are a black family.  He's concerned that this will bring the property values down, and after a failed effort to get them to move somewhere else, he visits Russ and Bev to try to get them to back out of the sale.  Russ and Bev weren't aware of the race of the family buying the house, and they don't really care too much.  However, Karl's frustration escalates.

Tanesha Gary (Francine) and Nancy Bell (Bev).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
At one point Francine (Tanesha Gary), Russ and Bev's African-American maid, and her husband Albert (Chauncy Thomas), are pulled into the fray as Karl tries to get them to admit that their sort would be more comfortable living amongst "their own kind", where they could "buy the kinds of foods that they like".  Karl's kind of an asshole, and he ignites a bomb with a timer, and as Bev frets, Karl rants, Francine and Albert squirm, and Karl's wife Betsy, who happens to be deaf, attempts to follow, Russ finally reaches his limit and throws Karl and Betsy out of the house along with some choice words.  Russ has no interest in living in a neighborhood that could be so unfeeling towards his son, Kenneth (Gilde), after he returned from the war in Korea, and Russ and Bev are ready to move on to a different neighborhood, away from some painful memories associated with the house.

Michael James Reed (Karl), Chauncy Thomas (Albert),
Nancy Bell (Bev), Shanara Gabrielle (Betsy),
Tanesha Gary (Francine) and Eric Gilde (Jim).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Act two begins in the same house, fifty years later, where the same actors play different characters.  Clybourne Park has since become an all-black neighborhood, and there's a new white couple preparing to move in.  This couple, Steve and  Lindsey (Reed and Gabrielle), are planning to demolish the old house and build a huge one.  They're going over some neighborhood building codes concerning elevation limits with a lawyer, Kathy (Bell), an owners association representative, Tom (Gilde), and a couple from the neighborhood committee -- Lena (Gary) and her husband Kevin (Thomas).  Lena happens to be the great-niece of the woman who bought the house years earlier.  Not only does she have a personal connection to the house, she's also concerned that the new couple's plans to build a bigger house will compromise the character of the neighborhood.  Once Lena expresses her concerns, the gloves eventually come off as the meeting humorously but brutishly devolves into hostility and racists jokes.  The play concludes with a chilling, if not a little disconnected trip back to the house in 1959 that took many audience members by surprise, as well as audibly taking their breath away.

Tanesha Gary (Lena), Chauncy Thomas (Kevin),
Mark Anderson Phillips (Dan), Shanara Gabrielle (Lindsey)
and Michael James Reed (Steve).
©Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Under Timothy Near's impeccable direction, the performances of the cast were splendid across the board.  Although act two shows just about everyone in their worst light, Michael James Reed as Karl in act one and Steve in act two serves up a biting performance, brimming with self-justification and thinly veiled indignation.  Bell overflows with nervous energy as Bev, and Phillips is brooding as Russ in act one, and a comical workman in act two.  Gary and Thomas turn in pitch-perfect performances in act one, quietly suffering slights and indignities, and the more out-spoken act two couple.  Gabrielle is excellent as Betsy in act one and Lindsey in act two, and Gilde plays his roles solidly.

Scott C. Neale's impressive set undergoes a marvelous transformation between acts from comfy middle-class bungalow to run-down eye-sore.  The set is complimented by Ann G. Wrightson's lighting design and Tom Haverkamp's sound design, and Lou Bird's distinctive costume design rings true for both time periods.

This play proves that all of the social graces in the world can't cover up the fearful and hostile nature of these characters once the veneer starts to crack.  Its relevancy is sobering, but definitely worth checking out.


Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by Timothy Near
Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
through November 18 | tickets: $47 - $60
Performances Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesday to Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm, Selected Saturdays at 9pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm

Mark Anderson Phillips* (Russ/Dan), Nancy Bell* (Bev/Kathy), Tanesha Gary* (Francine/Lena), Eric Gilde* (Jim/Tom/Kenneth), Chauncy Thomas* (Albert/Kevin), Michael James Reed* (Karl/Steve) and Shanara Gabrielle* (Betsy/Lindsey).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenice design by Scott C. Neale; costume design by Lou Bird; lighting design by Ann G. Wrightson; sound design by Tom Haverkamp; stage manager, Champe Leary.