Tony award winner Clybourne Park now in Toronto
Peel back the layers of wallpaper in an old Victorian home and you're likely to uncover the patterns and pastimes of earlier generations. The thick walls and creaky floors are bound to have been party to a ground-shifting secret or two. Such is the premise of Bruce Norris's play Clybourne Park, written in response to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.
Set in the same house in both 1959 and 2009, the debates in the living room — of race, gender, and community — are a touchstone of the times, as well as a reminder of a prevailing dialogue that still remains. Studio 180's production, directed by Joel Greenberg, is a cleverly written, adeptly directed comedy that tackles questions of racial tension.
The play starts conventionally enough in the home of Russ (Michael Healey) and Bev (Maria Ricossa) who, along with their Black housekeeper (Audrey Dwyer), are packing up their home in Clybourne Park to escape the overwhelming grief caused by the suicide of their son. After a neighbour informs them that their house was sold to a Black family, the members of the community debate the future implications of the house's sale. To say their opinions are divided is an understatement.
Act two unfolds 40 years later where two couples sit with a lawyer and a representative from a community committee to hash out plans for a new house in place of the old one. Lena (Dwyer) fights to preserve the modest dwelling, given its historical significance as one of the first homes inhabited by a Black family in the neighbourhood. Yuppies Steve (Mark McGrinder) and Lindsey (Kimwun Perehinec) politely question Lena's misgivings, which, over time, gives rise to a torrent of racially charged outbursts. Echos and parallels from act one abound.
Rarely have portraits of racial debate been so deftly blended with comedy. Each character contributes to the conversation in their own way, either blindly searching for middle ground or holding firm to their political position. Unfortunately for the characters, no one really comes out on top. Only Bev shows any real compassion for the members of her fellow community.
Greenberg finds a lot of important nuance in the text. The first act specifically builds to an incredible crescendo, courtesy of Healey's skill. His Russ is a boiling pot weighed down with a heavy lid of grief, and when he finally does boil over, it's the emotional highlight of the show.
The only unfortunate consequence is that the second act, while much more funny, does not reach the same poignant height. The same can be said for the footnote at the show's conclusion which seems rather unnecessary.
The acting is strong throughout, especially since each performer portrays two different characters. If Healey drives the first act, it's McGrinder and Dwyer's battle that defines the second. Each does well in escalating the conversation from query to full blown sparring match.
Norris' play shatters our cosmopolitan cocoon by interrogating all of the supposed good will which masks our under-the-surface fears. And to do it with such comedic style is a triumph.
Clybourne Park, written by Bruce Norris and directed by Joel Greenberg, runs at the Panasonic Theatre until March 3.
Photo courtesy of Mirvish