Clybourne Park at the Guthrie Theater

Ansa Akyea and Sha Cage in Clybourne Park.

Ansa Akyea and Sha Cage in Clybourne Park.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

It is lucky that Jim Lichtscheidl gives such a rich and multi-layered performance in the first act (set in 1959) of Clybourne Park (at the Guthrie, through August 4).  His Karl is a despicable toad and playwright Bruce Norris fills his mouth with poisonous 1950s platitudes and nasty racial clichés.  Having discovered (belatedly) that Russ intends to sell his house in snowy Clybourne Park to a “colored family”, Karl first tries to buy the new family out (a plot device taken directly from Lorraine Hansberry‘s classic A Raisin In The Sun).  Failing here, he then tries to talk Russ out of the sale, waxing by turns fussy, nervous, wringing his hands; then speechifying, posing for his squeaky wife; finally turning vicious and shrill.  Lichtscheidl’s work is compulsively watchable.  It anchors the first half of the play.

Also excellent is the always-terrific Bill McCallum as Russ.  Pot-bellied and stolid, planted in his favorite chair, steadily ripping through a half gallon of ice cream, Russ’s slow burn passion takes two thirds of the act to gain steam, but when it does – look out.  “The ink,” he informs Karl, “is dry.”  To truss-wearing, sweet, greasy and cowardly Pastor Jim (great work by Peter Christian Hansen), “Go fuck yourself.”  “I won’t let you speak like that in front of wife,” Karl screeches.  “She’s deaf!”  McCallum is a hoot and a half.

Of course, Norris lets Russ off the hook by making the sale to the black family accidental (Clybourne Park would have been, in my humble opinion, rather more interesting had his decision been deliberate).  And indeed, Act 1 is largely an exercise in moral smugness: the characters argue, vociferously, an issue our society long ago settled.

Act 2 is set in the present (well, 2009) and as a result things become more relevant – and more interesting.  The now-ramshackle house is being sold by Kevin and Lena (African-American) to Steve and Lindsay (white) who intend to rip it down and build anew.  The neighborhood is being gentrified: once completely white, it became completely black.  But now the hip, white (and rich) urbanites are moving in.  The locally owned market was sold to a cheapo supermarket chain and is now a Whole Foods.  Ah, but the ghosts of Clybourne Park still live.  Will they ever disappear?

If Act 1 belongs to Jim Lichtscheidl, Act 2 is Shá Cage‘s.  Her shy and halting, quiet and passionate, deeply felt efforts to express her reverence for the history of Clybourne Park, and her profound reservations about the unstoppable economic forces altering her beloved neighborhood are a marvel.  Cage achieves an emotional intensity that no one else in this (well-acted) play approaches.  Truly lovely work.

But soon Act 2 devolves into angry shouting and a series of painfully unfunny racial jokes as Norris forces his characters to fall back on ancient and mud-puddle shallow racial attitudes.  Is this really where we are in the 21st century?  “The only cunt here,” Steve asserts, “is her.”  Yikes.  I don’t want to believe this, but Clybourne Park gives us no one to argue cogently otherwise.

Any reservations about the bleakness of the play’s message is mooted by the tiptop quality of the acting (great praise here is due helmsperson Lisa Peterson), and the energized writing; can Norris ever craft a scene.  The design work thrills (especially David Zinn‘s costumes).  The play is definitely worth a look.

Next up at the Guthrie: Pride And Prejudice, the final play of the 12-13 season, beginning July 6.

Like this review?  Don’t like it?  Have an opinion you wish to express?  Leave a comment!

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

How Was the Show for You?

Your email address will not be published.