Sometimes a house is just a house. Sometimes it’s a home. Sometimes it’s the bearer of secrets or of legacies. And sometimes it’s a stage where dreams, emotions, fears, and changes play out.
A house, in other words, can be quite a loaded place. And in Bruce Norris’ scathingly funny and gut-wrenching Clybourne Park, what’s happening to a house – the same house, 50 years apart, in Act 1 and Act 2 – speaks volumes about what’s happening to the characters, their neighborhood, and the world beyond.
One of the most decorated plays of recent years – winner of the 2011 Olivier Award, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, among others – Clybourne Park will close out Silver Spring Stage’s 48th season beginning this Friday, June 24th. The Stage’s production, directed by Seth Ghitelman, will run through July 17th.
The play revolves around two sales of the aforementioned house, located in a fictional Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park. In 1959, Russ (played by Michael Kharfen, who plays construction worker Dan in Act 2) and Bev (Julie Zito; she plays lawyer Kathy in Act 2) are selling their desirable home at a bargain price. Unknowingly, they are bringing the first black family into the neighborhood, which creates ripples of un-neighborly discontent. (Here, Norris very deliberately borrows a plot line from A Raisin in the Sun.) In 2009, a young white couple is buying the same property; their plan to raze it and start again is met with equal disapproval by Clybourne Park’s black residents.
Though there is no issue in American society that is thornier or more persistent than race, Norris isn’t interested in grappling with it in a full-on serious way. “I was drawn to the humor used to address serious subjects,” says Ghitelman. At the same time, the play strikes many serious and sad chords. “Bruce Norris says that Act 1 is a tragedy and Act 2 is a comedy,” notes Ghitelman, “so it is a challenge to connect the two acts by more than just the same house.”
That’s just one of many challenges presented by this highly intelligent and engrossing work. The designers and stage crew have to create a 1959 house and a 2009 house in the same space, and transform it from the first to the second at intermission. And seven of the eight actors play two strikingly different roles, one in each act. For example, in Act 1, Brad Eaton plays Albert, husband of Russ and Bev’s maid, Francine (Gayle Carney, who plays Lena in Act 2). In Act 2, he plays Kevin, a successful and outspoken banker. “I have to be docile and invisible in the first act and then vocal and relevant in the second act,” he says. “It’s like two plays in one.”
By putting those “two plays” in the same house, Norris creates a frame for his central question: Are the issues festering beneath the floorboards the same, 50 years on? Within that question are many others: Do we still not understand that the yearning for home and neighborhood is universal? Do we still make blanket assumptions about people of other races? Do we still speak in platitudes that paper over our real feelings? Do we still sometimes not even know – or, at any rate, acknowledge – our real feelings? “One of the smart things that Bruce Norris does, via the echoes down the half century from 1959 to 2009, is to call out our propensity to slap a label on something or someone and think that we have understood it,” says David Gorsline, who plays pastor Jim in Act 1 and real estate lawyer Tom in Act 2. The cast also features Win Britt (Kenneth), Paige Fridell (Lindsey/Betsy), and Matthew Gallant (Karl/Steve).
Now, of course, we’re seven years past 2009 – but we’ve hardly settled the questions that animate and roil Clybourne Park. In fact, they’ve arguably become even more intense. “The themes of this play are relevant now more than ever,” says Zito. Citing the current election season as well as events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Orlando, and elsewhere, she adds, “We cannot solve these issues through art, but we can create an environment for talking honestly about them in all their complexity.”
Ghitelman and his actors say Silver Spring Stage is the perfect place to have that honest conversation via Clybourne Park. The Stage’s intimacy will make audiences feel as though they’re practically in the house with the characters. And the diversity and many changes in Silver Spring itself make the community an ideal location for showcasing Norris’ play.
That speaks to the broad and ongoing significance of Clybourne Park: it puts us with specific people in a specific house but then takes us far beyond – and into ourselves. As Norris himself has said, “Clybourne Park is a universal story that isn’t about American black/white history. It’s about territory and disputes over territory because of ethnicity or difference.”
Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., plus Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on July 10 and July 17th. The opening night performance will be followed by a reception to which all audience members are invited. There will be a Q&A “talkbalk” with director Seth Ghitelman and cast members after the July 10th matinee.
Regular ticket prices are $25 adult, $22 student/senior; tickets may be purchased online or at the box office before each performance. In addition, $12.50 tickets are available for select performances on Goldstar. There is also a Pay-What-You-Can preview on Thursday, June 23, at 8 p.m. The Stage is located in the Woodmoor Shopping Center – 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD 20901.
NOTE: The article is by Lennie Magida.