Russ eats Neapolitan ice cream straight out of the carton while his wife and maid pack boxes.
Tilted portraits on the mantel and a trunk that needs to be moved reveal not just a change of residency but a move towards a different society. This placid moment, the “calm before the storm,” is broken by Open Stage of Harrisburg’s talented and hilarious ensemble in Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” a comedic drama presented with humor and passion on opening night last weekend.
In the middle of the Civil Rights movement, a white family leaves the boastful Clybourne Park neighborhood in this precursor to “A Raisin in the Sun.” Fast-forward half a century to the same house (with the same actors playing different characters), as the home changes hands back to a white family, and not many of the issues between races have been fully resolved.
The ensemble of seven plays authentically off one another cohesively to form the two acts that feel not like line delivery on stage, but eavesdropping on one’s living room conversation.
Set in the home of Russ and Bev, a couple whose son committed suicide two years prior to the scene, the first act manifests the trepidation and fear surrounding racial divide in a late-1950s Chicago neighborhood. As the couple and their black “help” pack boxes, neighbor Karl and his deaf and pregnant wife Betsy enter the scene in an attempt to convince homeowners Russ and Bev that selling 406 Clybourne Park to a black family is a terrible mistake. This is clearly the adaptation of a minor character in “A Raisin in the Sun” who tried to buy the Youngers (the couple moving into the home) out of their move.
Karl (Stuart Landon), a peculiar and close-minded character, creates tension and awkwardness, while Kimorie Cherry’s Betsy plays up the stereotype of a deaf woman, with exaggerated hand gestures and words not quite formed. Embarrassing and uncomfortable conversations ensue that grip the audience.
Valerie Rae Smith as Bev relays the apprehension surrounding racism and acceptance so prevalent in the time period, as well as the stereotype of a housewife. A complex character presented as a basic white woman with light-hearted, surface- level interests, Smith brings out the complexities that naturally would accompany loss of an adult son to suicide.
The second act opens on a group discussing the legality of Steve and Lindsey’s home renovation. Lena, the niece of the home’s first black owner, ruffles proverbial feathers when she questions Steve concerning gentrification of the now predominantly black Clybourne Park. Though Jennette Harrison’s characters embody less emotion than her costars’ lively expressions and gestures, her timing and line delivery build the drama. The group gets into a heated discussion about racial jokes in which lawyer Tom (Benjamin Koontz) reveals that he is gay, yet not offended by a gay joke. The entire cast delivers awkward banter and talks over one another in a realistic portrayal of conflict between acquaintances.
As the play briefly returns to 1959, the audience sees Bev’s son writing what appears to be a suicide note. The lights dim, and the overarching conflict lingers—has the Civil Rights movement really solved the issues between black and white? Or, more, has the fine line between what was once taboo blurred into a thick, grey area of offense and defense?
“Clybourne Park” is fast-paced enough that, at its close, this reviewer wanted more. These excellent actors animated their characters’ flaws humorously while engaging the audience, as the cast tackled the tough racial divides that remain today.
“Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris runs through May 3 at Open Stage of Harrisburg, 223 Walnut St., Harrisburg. The difficult topics and harsh language are more likely suitable for an adult audience. For more information, visit http://openstagehbg.com or call 717-232-OPEN.