The Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park’s greatest strength is its embrace of the uncomfortable. Bruce Norris’s play, tangentially related to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, features two acts separated by 50 years, and though some things change during that period, a lot doesn’t – namely, the pain and prejudices of humanity that often begin to break through the façade of civility when the pressure’s on.
Currently running on Broadway after an acclaimed off-Broadway stint, Clybourne Park comes to Seattle Repertory Theatre through May 13 in an engaging, well-acted production that serves Norris’ work well.
The play opens in 1959, where Russ (Peter Crook) and Bev (Suzanne Bouchard) are in the final stages of packing and moving away from their suburban middle-class Chicago home. Norris begins to weave the discomfort in early, with Russ and Bev’s conversation about semantics clearly standing in as filler for a host of unspoken hurt. Neither seems like a particularly happy or pleasant person – he snipes at her unprovoked; she patronizingly condescends constantly, most egregiously to her black maid, Francine (Kim Staunton).
But the uneasiness is just getting ramped up, as visits by supercilious priest Jim (Aaron Blakely) and Raisin minor character Karl Lindner (Darragh Kennan) and his deaf, pregnant wife (Marya Sea Kaminski) expose the raw nerve of a past familial trauma and a massive wave of underlying racism. Turns out the buyers of the house are a black family – Raisin’s the Youngers – and Karl is worried their presence in a white neighborhood could lead to declining property values or worse. When the conversation turns to Francine and husband Albert (Teagle F. Bougere) for an African-American perspective, things get even more mortifying.
The second act fast-forwards 50 years to the same house, now part of a predominantly black neighborhood that’s being gentrified. Kennan and Kaminski reappear as a young professional couple looking to tear down the house and build fresh on the lot, while Bougere and Staunton are neighborhood association representatives looking to maintain the area’s historic look. Bouchard and Blakely play the parties’ respective lawyers, while Crook is wedged in as a burly contractor.
Again, Norris orchestrates a symphony of discomfort – first in the artificially friendly discussion of housing codes, followed by a maelstrom of resentments, racial and otherwise. More overtly funny than the first act, this examination of present-day prejudices is also more incisive, even if it’s a lot sloppier structurally. Truthfully, this seems to suit the play a little better. It’s easy to know how to feel for much of the tightly assembled first act, but things get more ambiguous in the second. A coda that reveals some of the history of Russ and Bev’s personal tragedy feels like a misstep though, diffusing the awkwardness in favor of some cheaply earned tears on your way out the door.
Seattle Rep’s production is unimpeachable from top to bottom, with the ensemble inhabiting two sets of characters so thoroughly, it’s tough to single one actor out above the rest. Braden Abraham’s taut direction ensures the tension is rarely allowed to escape from the fraught scenarios, and Scott Bradley’s highly detailed scenic design transforms the set from respectable mid-century living room to rundown, construction-ravaged shell between acts.
Clybourne Park is on stage at Seattle Rep now through May 13. Tickets are available for purchase online.