Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A review of Clybourne Park

by Matthew Falduto
Cedar Rapids - I love spaces like the Grandon Studio. It's a wonderfully intimate space that allows Theatre Cedar Rapids to present lesser known shows that might not sell out the huge auditorium located above. Shows like for colored girls... and Doubt, not to mention the annual Underground New Play Festival, play better in an intimate space like the Grandon Studio. Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, a thought provoking play about race, is a perfect Grandon Studio show.

Clybourne Park is a bit of a spin off of the classic play, A Raisin the Sun. In that show, set in the late 1950s, an African American family named the Youngers has just bought a house in a white neighborhood. A racist man, Karl Lindner, attempts to buy them off to keep them from moving into his neighborhood. They refuse and the play ends with them leaving for their new home.

Norris' play opens in the home the Youngers have bought as the current owners, Russ and Bev, are in the process of packing their things. The action really gets going when Karl Lindner, the one character from A Raisin in the Sun who also appears in Clybourne Park, arrives. He wants them to scuttle the sale of the house so the Youngers can't move in. In the second act of the play, set in current time, everything is flipped as a Caucasian family wants to move into the house, which is now in a predominantly African American neighborhood. All but one of the actors play different characters in each act.

The actors are all excellent. In the first act, Greg Smith and Traci Rezabeck treat us to an instantly relatable picture of an old married couple’s comfortable relationship. They have an unimportant argument the like of which we have all had with our spouses many, many times. Just as the audience was wondering where this was going, Rezabeck mentions the chest that she wants moved downstairs. Smith's demeanor changes immediately, his body tensing and his words becoming clipped. We know this chest is extremely significant and the mystery begins. This is just one example of the disciplined and intense acting we see throughout this entire play. 

I particularly enjoyed Kehry Anson Lane in the first act. I’ve seen Lane in a number of productions, most recently as the title character in Man of la Mancha. Suffice it to say, the bigoted, over-explaining character of Karl is a huge departure from that role and demonstrated Lane’s wonderful versatility as an actor. Jordan Hougham, who plays the wife of both of Lane's characters, is also excellent, easily navigating the two characters she must play: a deaf, go-along-with-her-husband wife in act one and a liberal woman in act two.

Tierra Plowden is the picture of strength in both acts. Her second act character was flashier and more exciting to watch, particularly when she challenges Lane's character, but her work in act one as housekeeper Francine is where she truly showed her acting skills. The subtle strength she emanated as Francine was carefully constructed with body posture and telegraphed with an expressive face. She was completely present in the scene even when she had no lines.

While Rezabeck was wonderful in act one as her character struggled to do the right thing in a world with blatant institutionalized racism, she was perhaps even better in act two, where she showed her comedic chops, delivering funny line after line with expert timing. Rob Merritt's characters were both somewhat outside of the central dramas of the two acts, but he did excellent supporting work, and ably provided comic relief in act one. Joshua Raheim was particularly strong at the end of act one, delivering a devastatingly honest line to Rezabeck, who again showed her acting chops by wilting and then rising back up to respond. 

The set was simple, and the excellent creative decisions resulted in a very intimate setting. To enter the space, the audience must walk through the front door of the house, which served the function of making us believe we were inside the house. This is crucially important for this show, as the house almost becomes another character in the show, particularly in act two. 

The lighting design was excellent, simply illuminating the action, never standing out for the majority of the show. And then the one time it did stand out, at the emotional end of the show, it perfectly enhanced the action and the emotion of the scene.

I’ll admit to being a little fearful coming to the Grandon Studio, since in the past there have been shows that were not staged well for a thrust stage. Director Angie Toomsen clearly understands the thrust stage, often expertly arranging actors in the corners, which allowed them to be seen by the entire audience. Though I was sitting on the far end of one of the sides, I could see everything I needed to see in order to be fully impacted by the show. There was only one moment I noticed and I’m writing this on behalf of the man who sat on the other side of theatre kitty corner to me. Because of where the final character sits, this audience member was craning his neck around to see the action center stage. If that actor had sat just a couple feet more toward the corner between the two audience sections, everyone would have been able to see what they needed to see. It’s a small quibble about an otherwise expertly staged show.

I've spent a lot of words explaining the nuts and bolts of this theatre production, but the fact is it's the emotional intensity that the actors bring to every moment that makes this is a show worth experiencing. I was blown away by so many powerful moments... from Smith's riveting and emotional outburst toward the end of act one to the intense standoff between Lane and Plowden's characters over a racist joke in act two. This play makes you squirm in your seat as you listen to the characters attempt to navigate the still choppy waters of our racial divide. But you know, we need to squirm. We need to think about these issues. I am sure Clybourne Park created a lot of conversations in the car on the way home. And that's what good theatre is all about. Kudos to TCR for producing such an important show. Don't miss it.

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