Theatre review: Clybourne Park digs just a little deeper

While the questions of racism raised in the Pulitzer and Tony award winning Clybourne Park may have more in common with our neighbour’s to the south, similar questions could just as easily be asked in some of the gentrified neighbourhoods of Vancouver.

With forty years between acts, playwright Bruce Norris sets out to prove that history has a way of repeating itself as he presents events that occur before and after Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun.

In act one, 1959 Chicago sees an integration of the white-bread Clybourne Park neighbourhood, while in act two the tables are turned as the now predominantly black neighbourhood is being sought after as a desirable location close to the city.  The decades may be different, but both find families and neighbours at odds with each other over what many believe to be inevitable changes; playwright Norris refuses to make things so black and white though, forcing us to question those inevitabilities.

Doing double-duty, the cast of this Arts Club Theatre Company’s season opener must find a distinctive tone for each of their two characters between acts.  While this capable cast manages to find individuality in each of their characters, it is led by some standout performances.

Robert Maloney is perfectly maddening as the racist Karl in act one, the single character pulled directly from Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and finds himself a perfect foil to Andrew Wheeler’s Russ whose gruff exterior is tinged in a believable and deep sadness.  In act two Wheeler sees the biggest physical transformation into the smaller role of the builder, while Maloney is delightfully oblivious to the potential impact his words may have on others in the room.

Marci T House finds wonderful contrast in her two characters from the reserved domestic Francine in act one to the uptight Lena in act two.  Sebastien Archibald finds his biggest strength as Jim, the man-of-the-cloth who searches in vein for the right thing to say in act one, but even as lawyer Tom in act two his revelation is surprisingly as funny as some of the wickedly inappropriate jokes being told.

Robert Moloney, Deborah Williams, Marci T. House, and Daren Herbert in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Clybourne Park. Photo by David Cooper.
Members of the cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Clybourne Park. Photo by David Cooper.

While both acts took some time to get up-to-speed, when they did Director Janet Wright ensures Norris’ words have as much impact as possible by keeping the pace blistering fast.  But even as discussions devolve into hysterics and shouting matches, Wright ensures her actors are heard through the mayhem.

Set designer Ted Roberts gives a realistic depiction of the Clybourne Park home, although oddly its front door was hidden for half of the audience.  Barbara Clayden effectively captures the 1950s feel of act one with her costumes and lighting designer Marsha Sibrhorpe contrasts the decades with a brownish hue in act one and a brighter act two.

At times shockingly funny, the biggest strength of Clybourne Park comes not from asking how far we have come or how far will we go, but by digging just a little deeper to ask: how far are we willing to go?

4 out of 5 StarsClybourne Park

By Bruce Norris.  Directed by Janet Wright.  An Arts Club Theatre Company production. On stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through October 7, 2012.  Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.

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