As a rule, it's probably a bad idea to pay someone to make you feel uncomfortable. As it happens, SpeakEasy's production of Clybourne Park at the Boston Center for the Arts is the exception that proves the rule — director M. Bevin O'Gara and her cast have made discomfort a way station to insight, even revelation.
Bruce Norris's Tony- and Pulitzer-award–winning Clybourne Park was inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 A Raisin in the Sun (now being presented by Huntington Theatre Company at the B.U. Theatre), in which the African-American Younger family face the hatred of a white neighborhood that doesn't want them moving in. This time, we see events through the eyes of Russ (Thomas Derrah) and Bev (Paula Plum), who sold their house to the Youngers. As they pack their things, suburban tyrant Karl Lindner (Michael Kaye) arrives, incensed that a black family bought the house, and he's willing to exploit a tragedy to keep them out. The ensuing fracas is driven by remarkable performances. Derrah is an avalanche, spiraling into a rage as Lindner's racism threatens to crush Russ's future. Kaye, too, is a force, rattling 21st century sensibilities each time he casually drops the word "colored." The tension often gives way to uncomfortable laughter, but the intense bigotry and deep sadness of the first act make intermission feel like a reprieve.
Still, there's no escaping the second act. The blatant racism of the '50s is sublimated through political correctness, and the conversation is strikingly familiar. It's 2009. A wealthy white couple wants to knock down the Younger house and build a bigger one, but the community hits them with a petition. By manipulating the set and echoing pieces of the first act's staging, O'Gara physically emphasizes the comparison between eras in Norris's script.
Each actor plays a new role, adjusting their attitudes for today's "enlightened" times. "Half my friends are black!" is the best Lindsey (Philana Mia) can do as she tries to make nice with future neighbors Lena and Kevin (Marvelyn McFarlane and DeLance Minefee). As everybody blunders through a series of awkward conversations, struggling not to offend anyone, they end up offending everyone. Plum steals the act, this time as Lindsey's persnickety lawyer. But McFarlane is fiercely funny as Lena, a soft spoken, dignified black woman who comes to realize politeness won't get her far. Clybourne Park ends with a visually beautiful, emotionally harrowing coda, challenging the notion that anything has changed all that much in 50 years.
SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY :: Boston Center for the Arts :: 539 Tremont St, Boston :: Through March 30 :: $25-$52 :: 617.933.8600 or speakeasystage.com
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