Frankly, I was uncomfortable going to see Clybourne Park, Dezart Performs’ latest production.
The setting for this “Black (and White) Comedy by Bruce Norris,” as the play’s poster says, is Chicago—in 1959 for Act 1, then fast-forwarding 50 years to the same house in 2009 for Act 2. The show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011, as well as the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012, and it requires a cast of eight—a sea change for Dezart, which until previous show Casa Valentina, always kept the cast size small (possibly because of those dressing rooms?).
The play deals with the always-awkward topic of race and real estate. My husband, Ted, was born in Chicago, and we have discussed the way his city divided up into enclaves dominated by Italians, Greeks, Germans, Scandinavians and African Americans. For those who can remember the bad old days of segregated neighborhoods and the “blockbusting” that took place, this play could serve as an unpleasant reminder. Yes, it’s important for the generations who have followed to be informed of this country’s often-dark history, lest we romanticize the past by forgetting how life really was back then … but I concede I was uncomfortable seeing a play tackle such an awkward topic.
But … what a surprise: This production is amazing! The writing is just astonishing. The conversation is completely realistic, with people butting in, cutting each other off, misinterpreting and talking when they should be listening. Clybourne Park is a magnificent example of playwright Bruce Norris’ magisterial command of the language and his shrewd understanding of people.
The direction by Michael Shaw is incredibly impressive, with his steady hand guiding the actors to performances even and strong throughout. He gets credit for total success with the extraordinarily difficult lines. (He confided to me afterward that the greatest part of their rehearsals was spent perfecting the speeches and dialogue, some of which require a language warning.) Each of the actors was allowed to develop his or her character(s) so the “voice” of each role is clarion clear. But it is the director’s prodigious talent and multiple skills that create the play’s consistency of tone. The blocking is also textbook perfection. Wow.
And the acting … oh my! Everyone is a “character”—well, actually, two. The whole cast (with one exception) plays two roles: One in 1959, and a different individual in 2009. One of the delights of this production is seeing the characters the actors have developed. We watch a complete person in each act—the good, bad and ugly. We see their pain, their tempers, their sweetness and their struggles. We glimpse their past history and get to know them more intimately than you’d think the time would permit.
David Youse opens the first act and dominates it; he’s a lit fuse we fear will explode—but when? His Russ is a man-in-a-grey-flannel-suit type, but we see so much more danger simmering beneath his surface. We search for a clue about his repressed anger, but dread finding it. His second-act role of Dan is a chameleonic contrast—he’s a blasé construction worker with a totally different voice, stance and attitude. What fun! Now THIS is acting.
Playing his wife, Bev, in Act 1 is Theresa Jewett. She’s a perfect product of 1950s-era women’s magazines and advertising—not just in her voice and appearance, but also in her dizzy attitude and even her belief system. But watch that heart-shaped face manage an enormous range of emotions—the way she handles a distancing husband, her black housekeeper, or her painful memories. She transmogrifies for Act 2 into Kathy, a feisty blonde lawyer with attitude—a delicious contrast, and equally believable.
Desiree Clarke in Act 1, plays Francine, a black maid who expertly balances the subservience of a domestic with her own dignity and her inborn sense of right and wrong. She is beautifully complex, and she gains our respect. In Act 2, Clark becomes Lena, a new-millennium woman with power and a strong sense of self which she asserts fearlessly but quietly. Her flawless diction is lovely.
Robert Rancano is Jim, a hapless cleric whose rigid adherence to his teachings and rather poor understanding of his parishioners makes him, despite his great voice, an ineffective and predictable minister. Rancano creates this memorable character by making him forgettable. In Act 2, he’s Tom, who is supposed to be leading this meeting about the contract, but is preoccupied and distracted. Rancano gives a subtle performance that required a lot of thinking.
Robert Ramirez creates the role of Albert, the husband of Francine, striving to appear at ease in this Act 1 white household. Ramirez gives a multi-layered performance almost entirely with his extraordinarily expressive eyes. He draws our attention with few words but plenty of reaction. In Act 2, he becomes Kevin, married to Lena, a smart and confident professional with nothing left to prove about himself. You like him in both of his well-developed roles.
Rob Hubler appears as Karl in Act 1, and earns our great admiration thanks to his willingness to appear foolish. A well-meaning bungler, his friendship is almost a liability, despite his sincerity and his fine voice. Hubler adroitly switches to Steve in Act 2, playing a stronger person who comes to surprise us—and his wife—with his odd and previously unexpressed views.
The extraordinary role of Betsy, played by Phylicia Mason, gives us a dear character who is not only pregnant, but deaf. She is very credible, including the gentle forgiveness she shows her husband, Karl, as he misspells his sign language (yes, I caught that), and to people who thoughtlessly turn away from her while speaking—or who stupidly yell at her, hoping to be heard. Lovely acting! In Act 2, she is uncomfortably pregnant AGAIN, but this time as Lindsay, married to Steve, and now is a very vocal, assertive and even sometimes shrill creature.
The lone character who plays just one role is Sean Timothy Brown, who is Kenneth. He appears as a perfect military prototype—handsome, tall and fit, looking fabulous in uniform. We don’t know him long enough to appreciate all of his subtleties, but he is hugely affecting with his air of tragedy in this flashback. Again, we are reminded how effective even a small role can be.
Kudos to the cast, the director the entire supportive crew of this play for a job superbly done. Clybourne Park is the surprise of the season, with its controversial, occasionally offensive and sometimes hilarious script. Don’t doubt that you will be surprised by it, too.
Clybourne Park, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.