Trinity Rep’s poignant Clybourne Park

Walking the color line
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  October 25, 2011

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SERIOUS COMEDY Dickie, Warren, Ellis, Scurria, Hantman, and Wilson, Jr.

It would take a mountain of homage to overshadow the immense chutzpah that playwright Bruce Norris required to ride on the shoulders of an American theater classic like Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin In the Sun.

That's what Norris did — the riding, not necessarily the writing — in his 2010 Clybourne Park, an unusually serious take on the comedy which Trinity Repertory Company is staging through November 20.

Directed by Brian Mertes, the Trinity actors do a superb job inhabiting the various characters. But the play itself has problems, perhaps the most significant of which doesn't come until the very last scene, as crucial a placement as there is: an incident that had been recurringly referred to earlier, but which doesn't bear on the central concerns of the play, is depicted at sad, affecting length. The purpose doesn't seem to be to comment on or resolve anything but simply to end on a poignant note.

The Hansberry play deals with the aspirations of an African-American family in Chicago after World War II. Part of that involves purchasing a house in a white neighborhood and being offered money by the Clybourne Park Improvement Association to not move in.

The Norris play, this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for Best Play, places the first act in that very house in 1959. Act Two takes place a half-century later — the neighborhood now black, with a white family wanting to move in.

The first act contains the dramatic heart and soul of the play and could, in fact, succeed as a satisfying one-act play all by itself. As the white characters talk and laugh and argue, crucial to the significance and payoff is that the maid, Francine (Mia Ellis), is often overhearing them — and, even more importantly toward the end, so is her husband, Albert (Joe Wilson, Jr.), who has come to drive her home and continues to keep his temper over the racism, however oblivious to its practitioners, he is witnessing. He and his wife are even questioned about the odd notion of blacks wanting to move into the neighborhood, as an obtuse minister, Jim (Tommy Dickie), asks if they would want to do such a thing, all but declaring that of course they wouldn't.

Trinity veteran Timothy Crowe is the powerhouse that keeps the first act incandescent. He is Russ, the homeowner who wants to sell because his son killed himself in that house, partly because the neighbors were cruel to him. Crowe creates a soft-spoken, humorous, infinitely patient character who nonetheless thrums with the explosive potential of a suicide bomber. In an interview with me many years ago, the actor spoke of how he was far into his career before he learned to do less rather than more. Trusting that contexts and conversational ironies supply meanings in this skillful writing, Crowe's silences frequently speak volumes.

Anne Scurria plays Bev, his flibbertigibbet wife, who raises her voice in slowly speaking to Betsy (Rachael Warren), the deaf wife of Karl (Mauro Hantman). Karl is trying to keep the couple from selling, having failed to convince the black couple not to move in.

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