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“Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris at Long Wharf Theatre

by Zander Opper

            “Clybourne Park,” the current production playing at Long Wharf Theatre, is, quite simply, the most devastating play that I have encountered since John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” in 1990.  Playwright Bruce Norris has fashioned a work in which details and characters are introduced slowly, gradually revealing plot points through the most seemingly benign and mundane of words and conversations, until the audience has glimpsed the entire, breathtaking scope of his play.  It should be stated that Norris’s “Clybourne Park” uses Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” as a starting off point and perhaps the most significant compliment one can make about this new work is that it can stand proudly next to Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play.  With a cast headed by the terrific Alice Ripley and Daniel Jenkins, director Eric Ting’s production does full justice to the playwright’s ambitions and intentions, and, while there is much riotous humor in “Clybourne Park,” you may find yourself choking on the laughter in your throat.  Managing to embrace a wide range of emotions, from heart-stopping tragedy to moments of frivolous gaiety, “Clybourne Park” can stand as one of the most important plays written in the last twenty-five years.

It is stated in the program that the setting of the play is a house on Clybourne Street in Chicago, with the first act taking place in 1959 and then Act II jumping forward in time to 2009.  One of the many marvels of “Clybourne Park” is that it is able to capture the tone and feeling of each era precisely through the use of costumes, music, changes in the look of the set, and language itself.  The play opens on a couple (played by Alice Ripley and Daniel Jenkins) preparing to move out of their home and the various people—including neighbors, a priest, and a maid—who figure in their lives.  Without giving too much away, the introduction of each new character takes one gradually deeper and deeper into the heart of this play and the secrets that lie beneath the surface.  Pointedly, Bruce Norris uses silence as eloquently as language in this play; indeed, both what is said and what is left unspoken in “Clybourne Park” are equally significant.

Also important in this production is that each of the seven actors embodies different characters in each act, one from 1959 and the other in 2009.  The disparity between each of those two characters can sometimes be quite amusing (and, conversely, almost gasp-inducing).  While Alice Ripley is a matriarchal figure of the 1950s in the first half, in Act II she plays a hard-driving real estate agent.  Race plays a huge part in this play, too, with the gifted Melle Powers representing perhaps the biggest jump between eras, portraying first a maid to a white family and then an angry neighbor trying to dissuade a white couple from moving into her neighborhood.  In a cast in which everyone shines, Lucy Owen and Alex Moggridge stand out as the couple trying to move into the house in Act II, and Jimmy Davis and Leroy McClain are both superb in supporting roles.

However, Alice Ripley and Daniel Jenkins are truly at the center of “Clybourne Park,” with their Act I characters—and their secrets—coloring the entire show.  It should be stated that while the first act shows off the house on Clybourne Street as a lovely, elegantly decorated 1950s home, when the time period moves to 2009, this same house appears rundown, with graffiti on the staircase and the walls, and there is talk of tearing it down.  And while the playwright has designated Act II as taking place in 2009, he adds a haunting coda to his play, with Ripley changing her costume back to the one she wore in the first half.  When she appears again in the 1950s dress from Act I, the contrast between how she looks and the decrepit state of the house is quite startling.

This finale is a masterstroke by the playwright in bringing both the past and the future together, side by side, and the effect proves to be breathtaking.  By all means, run to see “Clybourne Park” at Long Wharf Theatre, to experience the full depth of this play and to revel in a work that is, quite simply, unforgettable.  Performances continue through Sunday, June 2nd and tickets can be ordered by calling the box office at 203-787-4282 or by going to http://www.longwharf.org.

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