STORY WRITTEN BY CHERYL THORNBURG
I always look forward to productions in Steel River Playhouse’s“ Newberry Loft, but I was unprepared for the profound impact of “Clybourne Park,” as performed in this compact space. The audience is essentially sitting in Russ and Bev’s living room with the actors a few feet from them as this thought-provoking story unfolds.
Set in two eras 50 years apart, it holds up a mirror to the prejudices, fears and conflicts that have plagued humanity throughout time. Bruce Norris’ characters will seem familiar. You know, or are like, some of them.
Act One is set in 1959 as Russ and Bev are preparing to move to the suburbs from their Clybourne Park home. Russ, played by Marc Schule, is still struggling with the suicide of his son and has cut himself off from friends. His wife, played by Allison Fisher, is trying to help him move on. As various friends stop in, tension builds as they try to interact with Russ.
Emotions erupt when a neighbor, Karl and his wife arrive and Karl, played by Joe Donley, informs them that the couple who has bought their home is black and he is not happy about it and begins spouting about property values declining, etc. Russ and Bev have no problem with it, but as Karl gets more agitated, what ensues is one of the most explosive scenes I’ve seen on stage. Schule and Donley tap into some real rage and the tension is palpable.
It is not just their acting that is superb, however, the other actors react to the situation in their own way, capturing the essence of a situation that played out many times in that era. Tia Chanel plays Francine, the black maid, who tries to stay out of the conflict; Jerry McGrier plays her husband Albert; Christopher Waters plays the minister and Lauren Salvo plays Betsy, Karl’s wife who is deaf.
Those same actors get to switch things up in Act Two, when the action moves to 2009 in the same home when a young white couple is meeting with real estate representatives and members of a neighborhood committee. Clybourne Park is now a black community in a desirable area and the young couple wants to tear down the house and build a larger one in its place.
Donley and Salvo play the newcomers and are met with resistance from Chanel and McGrier, who want to maintain the character of the neighborhood. Once again, things become heated and some of the actors who played lesser roles in Act One get to show what they can do in Act Two. Salvo shows a spunky side as she gets involved in discussions about the plans and Chanel plays a much stronger character as she defends the neighborhood where she grew up.
Schule who delivers such an intense performance in Act One, gets to show his versatility and provide comic relief as he plays a workman who uncovers a trunk while digging in the backyard.
The remaining character, Kenneth, Russ and Bev’s son, is only spoken of throughout the play until the final scene Zachary Clark is only on stage for a few minutes, but he makes an impression and gives the audience even more to think about.
“Clybourne Park” is directed by Rebecca May Flowers.
The play’s subjects may be serious, but in addition to intense drama, there are also some very funny moments to break that tension.
The themes may be uncomfortable and there is some crude language, but “Clybourne Park” is a play that needs to be seen, particularly in this day when the country is not just divided, it seems to be fractured.
The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning drama runs through Sunday, Feb.19 at at Steel River Playhouse, 245 E. High Street, Pottstown, PA 19464. Tickets for Clybourne Park are $22 for an adult, $19 for seniors (65+) and $15 for students. Tickets can be ordered online at www.steelriver.org. Seating in the Newberry Loft is limited, so reserve tickets soon. For more information, call 610-970-1199.