Every now and again, a theater performance comes along that reveals a strength of vision rarely seen, and Pioneer Theatre Company's new production of Clybourne Park is just such a show.
Playwright Bruce Norris's 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama is a cleverly constructed dive into American race relations, a two-act wonder that spans 50 years and combines engaging characters, passionate dialogue and, in the hands of a roundly capable cast, winning performances throughout.
Truly, the success of Pioneer's production relies on a cast capable of doing double-duty, playing different characters in Act I than in Act II, and Pioneer's cast comes through on that score. The first half of Clybourne Park is set in 1959, in the home where Bev (Celeste Ciulla) and Russ (David Manis) are packing up and moving on—essentially running away from the darkness left by their son Kenneth's demise after returning home from the Korean War.
Tying his script to the American classic A Raisin in the Sun, Norris' Russ and Bev are selling their home in their white neighborhood to the black Younger family from Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 work, resulting in a panicked uproar from neighborhood busybodies Karl (Brian Normoyle), his wife Betsy (Tarah Flanagan) and local pastor Jim (Kasey Mahaffy).
Humor-laced debates on cultural differences in cuisine and hobbies easily interact with Russ' tortured father, still mourning his son's loss and seemingly exhausted by his community and ready to get out. Bev's harried wife tries to keep the peace, not very successfully, and the presence of the family's black maid Francine (Erika Rose) and her husband Albert (Howard W. Overshown) leads to some increasingly uncomfortable, but mesmerizing, exchanges.
The second act fast-forwards 50 years to 2009, when the same house is now in a predominantly black neighborhood undergoing gentrification, with a white couple (played by Flanagan and Normoyle) trying to buy the place in order to tear it down and build a new house. Norris' dialogue is even more biting in this contemporary setting, the humor heightened by the stark relief compared to the tense exchanges that build throughout the scenes.
There are no weak links among the cast, who collectively handle Norris' rapid-fire exchanges gracefully and with the required passion. The play moves along quickly, and strikes a fine balance between its serious messages and well-deserved laughs. It's far from a simple night at the theater, but it's certainly as entertaining as it is enlightening.
Clybourne Park runs at the Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre Mondays through Saturdays until March 2. Tickets range from $25-$44 and are available at the theater's Website.