Bruce Norris may not be a household name, but he is one of or preeminent American playwrights and also an actor. You may recall my love for his play and its title: “The Pain and The Itch.” Much to its credit, Long Wharf is presenting another work of his, “Clybourne Park,”which won the Tony and Pulitzer Prizes in 2011.
Did you ever wonder what happened to the African/American family named Younger who were featured in Lorraine Hansberry's “Raisin in theSun?” At the end of that ground-breaking play, they all move to a white neighborhood in Chicago called Clybourne Park. Well, Bruce Norris follows them and their community in this intricately woven exploration of race relations and human suffering. Now, if this were only about race relations, it would be a one-issue show. But throw in human suffering and you have a fully-rounded play that is touching, shocking and funny. It is also exceptionally challenging for the actors and technical support staff, because Act 1 is set in 1959 and Act 2 is set 50 years later in 2009. For the most part they meet those challenges, beautifully aided by the dynamic direction of Eric Ting.
Packing boxes are scattered around the interior of a three-bedroom bungalow 406 Clybourne Street, well-designed by Frank Alberino, lit with nostalgic warmth by Tyler Micoleau. Daniel Jenkins gives a measured, sensitive performance as Russ, a father tortured by the death of his only son, a Vietnam war veteran. The young man, who killed many in a raid, committed suicide two years before in the home that have just sold. Russ's wife, Bev, wants him to get on with his life, an impossibility. The friends in their community have shunned them and Russ is bitter and resentful. Bev is also very fond of her maid, Francine, but clueless, as she tries to force her to take a silver chafing dish she does not want. Alice Ripley seemed a little lost in the Act 1 as Bev; she was far better in Act 2 as Kathy, a lawyer. Melle Powers is strong and clear both as Francine and then outspoken Lena, in Act 2. Her husband in both is played well by Leroy McClain. Jimmy Davis fine as the weak-willed minister, Jim and son Kenneth; but it is Lucy Owen and Alex Moggride, who take on the hardest roles.
Moggridge is Karl, the neighbor who delivers the news that Russ and Bev have sold their home to black people; he insists it will bring down the value of all other homes in the area and they must renege on that decision. Karl is threatening to tell the buyers about the suicide, which he feels affected the lower price. The stunned silence in the audience was palpable when all this is announced; but, believe me this was the prevailing opinion in those days. Lucy is quite funny as Karl's deaf pregnant wife, Betsy, and a belligerent pregnant spouse, Lindsay, Act 2, which turns ugly. It takes place in the same bungalow, now owned by Steve, played by Moggridge and Lindsay played by Lucy Owen. They are being called to task for they are rebuilding too high and large a structure for the community. It is just bad taste, Lena tells them, as she recounts the history of Clybourne Park and this very home, where her relatives lived. Dirty jokes are exchanged in a strange competition, which does not end well. There is some question about the staging of Act 2. The conversation would have been easier to follow, if all the characters were visible at all times. That aside, “Clybourne Park” is a courageous play and one worth seeing at the Long Wharf Theatre through June 2.