Monday, March 25, 2013

Perfection of Form and Execution - Review of "Clybourne Park" by Bruce Norris - Presented by The SpeakEasy Stage Company

Michael Kaye, Thomas Derrah, Marvelyn McFarlane, DeLance Minefee, Paula Plum, and Tim Spears in a scene from SpeakEasy Stage's production of Clybourne Park, running March 1-30 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets/info at or 617.933.8600. Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

Before I delve into the specifics of my review of the current SpeakEasy Stage Company production of "Clybourne Park" at the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, allow me a few moments to philosophize about the nature of "Perfection."  Plato devoted a great deal of time and writing to his concept of perfection, especially as he discussed ideal forms.  To Plato, everything that exists has a form of perfection for itself. All things work, in their existence, to approach their ideal - to move toward their perfection. An object, living or dead, always works in some manner to realize its intrinsic nature.  Thus, there exists, according to the Platonic way of thinking, a perfect ideal of "The Play." I believe that the current SpeakEasy production of "Clybourne Park" comes as close to achieving the level of that hypothetical Platonic ideal as any play that I can recall seeing.  If I were handed a magic wand that would enable me to make improvements on this play as written and as acted, I would simply lay down that wand and say, in effect, "If it ain't broke, . .. "

Everything about "Clybourne Parks" works like a well-oiled machine.  It is no accident that Bruce Norris has received universal accolades for the script - Tony Award, Pulitzer Prize, Olivier, et al.  I saw the Broadway production of this play last year, and was deeply impressed and profoundly moved.  When I learned that the Boston premiere would be taking place at the Boston Center for the Arts, I wondered how our local theater professionals would be able to match the high level of the New York production.  I need not have worried.  In every aspect, this present production either matches or exceeds the level of professionalism and artistry of the Broadway version.  Director M. Bevin O’Gara has selected a cast of men and women who are simply flawless in the execution of their challenging dual roles.

In his play, Norris weaves together threads from a rich variety of social themes  - racism, prejudice, gentrification, property, the importance of place, the nature of community, communication and barriers to communication, post-traumatic stress disorder, resiliency and the question of “who is my neighbor?”  In the hands of someone with less of a nuanced ear for dialogue and a less well-developed feel for dramatic arc, the scrambled themes could have devolved into a tangled hodgepodge.  Norris has crafted a tapestry that is awe-inspiring and deeply troubling.

“Clybourne Park” stands proudly on the shoulders of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic “A Raisin in the Sun,” and picks up the action of that play in 1959 as a black family is about to “break the color line” and move into an all-white community.   As Act I unfolds, it is slowly revealed that the white couple who are selling their home, Bev and Russ, are selling because of a family tragedy that has shaken them and their marriage to its very foundation.  The neighbors are disturbed by the decision to sell to a “colored family,” and escalating confrontations take place among Bev, Russ, Rev. Jim and Karl and Betsy.  Adding spice to the awkward conversations are the maid, Francine and her eager-to-please husband, Albert.  At the end of Act I, Bev and Russ are ready to move and the neighborhood is about to change.

In Act II, the tables are turned.  Fifty years have passed, and Clybourne Park has long since become a run down all-black neighborhood.  Because of its strategic location near downtown office spaces, the neighborhood becomes the target of affluent white families who are eager to buy up the undervalued properties and “re-gentrify” the old neighborhood.  A white couple, Lindsey and Steve, are planning to tear down the original house and replace it with a much larger structure that threatens to ruin the architectural and historical integrity of the neighborhood.  The African American leaders of the neighborhood association use many of the same arguments that Karl had used fifty years ago to justify keeping the neighborhood as it is.  After several scenes in which the characters dance around the issue of race with euphemisms and evasions, the issue finally explodes into shouting and insults that leave the audience breathless.

The two acts are the obverse and reverse sides of the same coin.  The author has done a masterful job of stitching together the two halves using several brilliant techniques.  The actors who had played roles in Act I return in Act II to play very different roles.  The continuity and the contrasts provide creative tension that adds to the play’s overall effect.  As Act II develops, it becomes clear that the characters of Tom, Lindsey, Steve, Kathy, Kevin, Lena and Dan have personal histories that intertwine with the house or with the neighborhood in ways that tie the actions of 1959 and 2009 together.  In addition, the writer uses a mysterious trunk – buried in Act I and disinterred in Act II – to tie together the tragedy that haunts the house and its inhabitants.

The acting by this cast is a series of revelations of dramatic storytelling at its finest.

Paula Plum plays the beleaguered and long-suffering wife, Bev, in Act I.  In Act II, she is Kathy, Lindsey and Steve’s lawyer, trying to resolve issues around zoning and historical commission regulations.   She is heart-breaking as Bev with panic threatening to break through at any moment her carefully preserved patina of normalcy and calm.

Thomas Derrah and Paula Plum in a scene from SpeakEasy Stage's production of Clybourne Park, running trough April 6 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets/info at or 617.933.8600. Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

Thomas Derrah plays Russ, whose world has been shattered by the family tragedy, and who resists relentless efforts by his wife, the minister and his “friends” to get him to "move on" beyond his debilitating grief  In Act II, he plays Dan, the working class contractor tasked with building a trench in the back yard of the house now undergoing renovation and enlargement.   His portrayal of Russ pulsates with despair and eventually with rage.

Marvelyn McFarlane plays Francine, the “colored maid.” in Act I.  In Act II, she portrays Lena, a member of The Property Owners Association, and a great-niece of the woman who had bought the property in 1959.  Her facial expressions, both as Francine and as Lena who is trying to get to speak her piece and is often interrupted, are priceless.  Her encounters with her husband in both scenes add a significant layer of subtext to the plot.

DeLance Minefee is Albert, Francine’s husband, and Kevin, Lena’s husband.  He balances beautifully the tensions within each character between deferential respect and repressed rage.

Michael Kaye is Karl, head of the Neighborhood Association in Act I, and Steve, the buyer of the house in Act II.  This actor revels in the challenge to play two very different kinds of clueless men, both hiding behind a flowing torrent of words to conceal ignorance and confusion.

Philana Mia plays the role of Betsy, Karl’s deaf wife in Act I, and Lindsey, the frustrated buyer and Steve’s wife in Act II.  She is brilliant in both roles.  Betsy’s deafness is used to great effect as a metaphor for the inability and unwillingness of most of the characters in this play to truly hear one another.

Tim Spears is bromide-spewing and smarmy Rev. Jim in Act I, and Attorney Tom in Act II.  Both of his characters serve to keep the action moving and to remind the others that it is almost 4:00 and almost time to wrap things up.  He has a bit of physical theater in the first act that cuts the building tension with some well-timed comic relief.

Each actor excels in their individual performances, but the strength of this cast is their ensemble work, playing off of one another’s provocations, moments of awkward silence, glances, sneers and circumlocutions.

Norris wields a whole tool chest full of literary devices to tell this story.  At times he is as subtle and nuanced as a scalpel, and at other times, he uses brute force to pry open the audience member’s minds and hearts in much the same way that Dan uses bolt cutters to break the lock on the mystery chest as the play reaches its denouement.

Sense of place comes through as a familiar motif.  Russ’s reading of National Geographic allows him to expand his knowledge of world capitals – Ulan Bator! – while simultaneously hiding behind the magazine to conceal his inner crumbling topography.  The identity of the capital of Morocco becomes a key point of contention in Act II.  The importance of place takes on an even deeper sense of poignancy when one considers that the location of the BCA in Boston’s South End is a neighborhood that has seen its own cycles of change – decay and re-gentrification.

It would be a “perfect” shame for a lover of theater to miss out on seeing this superb production.  Audience members have been storming the box office and filling each seat.  As a result, the run of the show has been extended to April 6.



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