Trinity Theatre Company proves in their committed, funny, and perceptive production of CLYBOURNE PARK that the more things change the more they stay the same. It peels back layers of the polite and socially accepted veneer to poke at enduring sore spots in our racial, economic, and cultural dynamics.
In Act 1, the audience meets Russ (Paul Uhler) and Bev (Melissa Malloy) the original sellers, on a Saturday afternoon who are trying to move to a new neighborhood for a better commute to work and to escape a painful past. Bev is trying to engage Russ in a conversation that starts with geography and ends with her saying “It’s nice isn’t it, in a way? To know we all have our place.”
Bev’s place is decidedly not packing for her upcoming move, she has left that to Francine (Ashley Graham) her African American housekeeper to do. Ah the beauty of perception, Bev sees herself as a magnanimous friend of her black staff worker, while putting demands on her time and having her work over the weekend, whereas Francine surely has better places to be if she weren’t getting paid.
Concerned about Russ’s state of mind, Bev has invited neighbor and local minister Jim (Shaun Lim) over to speak with him, but Russ doesn’t seem much in the mood for talk.
In the midst of all of this Karl (Robert N. Coe) an uptight neighbor has come over with his deaf wife Betsy (Emily Candia) with a protest. The community association (another enduring societal aggravation if there ever has been) has discovered that the new owners are black which is sure to lessen the property values, their sense of safety and community, and they want to stop the sale. They are a self-proclaimed “progressive community” but this is too far. Francine and her husband Albert (Daniel Solomon) find themselves awkwardly in the middle with no easy way to escape the escalating conversation.
Act 2 is 50 years later, on another Saturday afternoon. This time the house is run down and filled with people sitting around discussing renovation plans and city codes. Steve (Coe) and Lindsey (Candia) are a white couple looking to renovate the house in a now black community and they have their lawyer Kathy (Malloy) with them. Kevin (Solomon) and Lena (Graham) and their lawyer Tom (Lim) are there to discuss the restrictions the neighborhood association has proposed to not lose the area’s historic homes to redevelopment.
Communication quickly breaks down, first with travel questions (what is the capital of Morocco?), to disagreements on legal definitions, then to constant interruptions. One of which is Dan (Uhler) the handyman removing a dead tree from the backyard. While Lena and Kevin have traveled internationally, and work in the same areas of town as the white characters, it quickly becomes apparent that while everyone may be on a more equal socio-economic footing, everyone’s different backgrounds come into play.
The appearance of civility and politeness quickly dissolve as discussing subjects like racism, or historical context and turns into a sort of game of chicken of insulting jokes and comments between the two couples.
The ending connects the two acts in a way that suggests the first step to the healing of any kind, in either era, could be actually as simple as listening.
Directed by Kandace Crystal the show makes the most of its calm start that ramps up into confrontations that feel grounded and real. The characters feel true to themselves through directorial choices like Karl speaking with a lot of hand movements because he’s used to signing to speak to his wife Betsy, the fear that flashes across Albert’s face when an emotionally overwrought white woman grabs his hands to make him comprehend (an understandable reaction), or at the incredulous look on Lena’s face in Act 2 when she hears Steve and Lindsey are putting a koi pond in the backyard (I’m with Lena on this one).
Each member of the cast has an opportunity to have their moment, with some standout moments from Uhler as his slow-simmering emotion erupts to the surface, and the biting back and forth between Graham, Coe, Candia, and Solomon in the second act. Malloy and Lim bring more understated emotional moments to the heightened proceedings.
Costume designer Nicole Reidel uses the costumes in wonderful ways, first for putting Bev and Francine in mirroring outfits of black and pearls, as both sides of the lady of the house coin – though one does much more labor keeping the house running than the other. Her second stroke of brilliance is putting Steve in the double popped collar polos, nothing screams more that he has questionable taste and should not be making any major decisions.
Scenic design also by Lim (who was also the Stage manager) provides a nice open set for all the events to play out upon.
CLYBOURNE PARK by Trinity Theatre is playing through Sunday, March 8th. For ticket and showtime information go to www.trinityttc.org
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