“Clybourne Park” handles race and war with humor and grace

Rarely is the phrase “if these walls could talk” more apt than in the Asolo Repertory Theatre’s new production of Clybourne Park, which opened on Friday, March 15. This brilliant piece of storytelling, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and the 2012 Tony for Best Play, centers around the residents and neighbors of a North Chicago home. The production is a rather chilling commentary on the continuing scars of racism and the horrors of war, but the play’s success comes from playwright Bruce Norris’ searing humor and his compassion in dealing with painful subjects.The play begins with an older white couple surrounded by boxes in an upscale home as they prepare to move to a northern Chicago suburb, presumably to improve the pajama-clad Russ’ commute to work. Russ, played by the sublime Doug Jones, reaches a slow burn in the first act as we learn why his soul has been deadened. His chipper wife Bev, played with an irrepressible charm by Annabel Armour, tries to keep everyone civil as circumstances among the characters grow bitter. We learn that the two have sold their home to an African-American family; and busybody Karl (played by David Breithbarth in yet another stellar Asolo performance) tries to talk them out of it for “the sake of the neighborhood.” He has convinced himself that everyone would be happier if like stayed with like. He uses a distaste for unfamiliar foods as a surrogate for his overt distrust of African-Americans, giving even the family maid Francine (Tyla Abercrumbie, who only shows a portion of the fire she will light in the second act) and her husband Albert (Christopher Wynn) a wide berth when he enters the house. We learn that a great tragedy has taken place in the home, causing the family to accept a lower price for it. Ironically, this real estate transaction ushers in a new era of desegregation, as the first African-American family is able to afford a home in the neighborhood.In act two, 50 years later, the home is once again up for sale, but this time a white couple, Steve and Lindsey, played by Breithbarth and Sarah Brown (his wife in the first act as well), has chosen to move into the newly-gentrifying neighborhood, which offers architectural gems and a short commute to downtown Chicago. Abercrumbie (playing a descendant of the first black residents) and Wynn revisit roles similar to act one, this time as Lena and Kevin. Kevin just wants to fit in with the new neighbors, but Lena wants to hold on to the cohesiveness of the neighborhood in which she grew up. This time, Steve and Lindsey are the ones posing a threat to the community with their overly large home, koi pond and unfortunate taste. Steve and Lena use the protective barriers of racial stereotypes and invoke notions of reparations and the extinct white male, while the rest of the cast struggles to keep the peace and avoid offending one another. The laughs are uncomfortable but feel cathartic. One wonders when, if ever, it will be completely acceptable to treat racial issues with humorous commentary; and at the same time, why, even after we have elected our first black president, one would feel the need to declare, “I even dated a black guy!”

The play suggests that in many ways we are no further along in eliminating racial barriers than we were 50 years ago. However, one can find some comfort in the fact that Kevin works for a firm across the street from Lindsey’s office; that both couples have traveled to Prague; and that Kevin is a far more proficient skier than Steve. And, perhaps, even if these neighbors never become friends, their children will. For more information about this excellent production and to purchase tickets, go to asolorep.org.

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