Review by: J. A. Di Bello, photos by Jeff Knapp
ELLENVILLE, NY (June 1, 2015) – At the Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville one becomes aware of an Olympian force that guides the pens of playwrights yearning to expose the American culture in a manner that is truthfully obtuse and frequently offensive. Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and for this discussion Bruce Norris are guided individuals who have exposed the effects of culture on human behavior.
Brendan Burke, as Artistic Director, has thoughtfully and with sincere emotion energized Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park. It is a vibrant, raw and oftentimes humorous play about the realities of race and real estate. It earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010, the Olivier Prize for "Best New Play" and also won a Tony Award for “Best Play.”
As a feasible reflection of America as a whole, the Norris play is set in the city of Chicago, (Act I, 1959, Act II, 2009). On stage, screen and paper bound, Chicago has been portrayed by a multitude of disguises. Carl Sandburg attached his own memorable label:
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
And to accommodate the flaws of those characters who thrive, survive and die in Chicago’s Clybourne Park, the city’s shoulders must be broad and husky!
As alluded, the movement of this play is charted by the American culture, which in the eyes of Bruce Norris, is bigoted, prejudiced, and opinionated. Collectively these elements provide the necessities for a bubbling caldron of “toil and trouble.” This is theatre at its peak, theatre that causes one to think, ponder and examine the culture that governs human behavior.
To begin the journey, theatre goers enter the house to an open stage, as Act I reveals an undisguised display of a fifties-era living room, complete with a finger-dial phone and a transistor radio. It’s not bright, yet not dull. It appears quite accommodating, as Christopher and Justin Swader have designed an honest set, one that causes reflection: “Been here before?” one might ask. A ditto can be recorded for the Act II set. It is honest and conveys an all-important unity of purpose.
All of this is fine, as Technical Director Eli Reid applies his trade along with Lighting Director Richard Currie who has mastered the appreciative value of “fade outs.” But what causes this series of dramatic conflicts to ferment and boil is an assemblage of highly competent actors, who under the firm and proficient direction of James Glossman, nurture and usher the audience down a path of discovery and hopeful introspection.
Further, what needs to be pointed out at this point in a review is the character not listed in the “Dramatis Personae,” i.e., The House at 406 Clybourne Street. In Act I, 1959, the house is owned by a white couple, Russ and Bev, who are quite comfortable in their all-white neighborhood. Tragic circumstances, however, have caused a situation resulting in the sale of the house to a black couple. The white community is opposed to the sale of the Clybourne property to a black couple. In Act II, the same house, now owned by a black couple, Kevin and Lena, decisively and respectively portrayed by Ryan Quinn and Naja Selby, are similarly pressured by their black neighbors not to sell to “white folk.”
The cast is brilliant in its own way as each member may proudly wear a well-earned crown of laurels. There are seven characters in this play, as actors from Act I assume a new and different character in Act II. Impressive in Act I, is Wayne Pyle as he delivers a seriously depressed Russ to the audience. Russ and wife Bev, vividly depicted by Katie Hartke, have just sold the property in question to a black couple. His cantankerous, belligerent rage simmers just below the surface and finally erupts as he interacts with his fellow Rotarian, Karl, portrayed enthusiastically and credibly by Michael Pollard, who is hell-bent to halt the sale of the house to a black couple. Karl and others, including the family’s pastor, a clumsy, babbling individual effectively delivered by Dan Mian, fear the demise of the neighborhood and the loss of monetary value that will be the result of blacks living in Clybourne Park. In Act II, this promising and plausible Michael Pollard portrays Steve, the young man in his late thirties who wants to renovate the old house which is now in an all-black neighborhood.
It would be dishonest to review this production of Clybourne Park without directing a follow spot to Emily Sucher, as she so accurately and convincingly depicts an appropriately attractive white girl, married, pregnant and profoundly deaf. She has the pronunciation deficiencies characteristic of one who is unable to hear and imitate individual sounds or phonemes while displaying the ability to sign accurately.
Clybourne Park is considerably entertaining and profound, as its two acts travel their intended paths quickly and with a designed cohesiveness. Each act displaying a reflective culture that promotes racial divides and the oblique nature of human behavior. The racial jokes are hacky, with the intended purpose of promoting introspection and exposing the awkward negativity of blunt racial humor.
Clybourne Park plays at Shadowland Theatre, 157 Canal Street in Ellenville at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday through June 14. Tickets are $39 Thursday through Saturday and $34 on Sundays. Call: 845-647-5511 for tickets or visit: shadowlandtheatre.org