Difficult Subject Handled with Humor in CLYBOURNE PARK

by Walter Bender

(l-r): Erika Rose as Francine, David Ingram as Russ, and Julia Gibson as Bev in Arden Theatre Company's production of CLYBOURNE PARK. (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

One of the beautiful things about live theatre is that it can discuss sensitive subjects in a non-threatening environment. Subjects that normally make people feel awkward or uncomfortable can be laid bare on the stage with an audience willing and eager to share in the experience. Such is the case with the latest offering from the Arden Theatre Company, CLYBOURNE PARK.

This clever play written by Bruce Norris tells the tale of a house in a Chicago neighborhood over the span of 50 years. The address (406 Clybourne Street) may be familiar to some, as this is the house where the Younger family from A RAISIN IN THE SUN resides. Act 1 of CLYBOURNE PARK is the prequel to this classic piece. Bev and Russ (Julia Gibson, David Ingram) are in the process of packing up to leave, as they are moving the following Monday. They are visited by the local minister (Steve Pacek) and a neighbor with his very pregnant deaf wife (Maggie Lakis.) The neighbor Karl (Ian Merrill Peakes) informs Bev and Russ that the family purchasing their house is black, and tries to convince them to sell the house instead to the church, so that the local property values will not be affected. As the discussion escalates, both parties call upon Bev and Russ’ black housekeeper Francine (Erika Rose) and her husband Albert (Josh Tower) to support their sides of the argument.

Act 2 of the play takes place in 2009, fifty years after Act 1. The house has fallen into disarray as has the neighborhood, and a white couple are negotiating to purchase the house with the intent of tearing it down to rebuild. They are joined by lawyers as well as a young black couple who represent the local housing association. Negotiations on housing codes degenerate into an argument about racial issues, revealing deep-seated resentments on both sides.

From reading the above synopsis you may believe that CLYBOURNE PARK is a drama. However, the playwright chose to handle these issues in a darkly humorous manner, and CLYBOURNE PARK is quite funny. While a bit obvious and formulaic at times, the script is interesting and keeps the action flowing without degrading into melodrama.

(l-r): David Ingram as Dan and Ian Merrill Peakes as Steve in Arden Theatre Company's production of CLYBOURNE PARK. (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

The performances in the play were first rate from beginning to end. Each of the actors plays a character in both acts. Erika Rose was outstanding as Francine, her character spot on as the 50’s black housekeeper who keeps her true thoughts to herself (most of the time!) and as Lena, one of the representatives of the housing association who barely hides her contempt for the intruders. Maggie Lakis shows great range as both Betsy, the deaf and pregnant wife, and as Lindsey, the modern in-charge woman who knows what she wants and sees nothing wrong in wanting it.

Director Edward Sobel shows great familiarity with multiple theater styles, keeping the first act in the style of a 50’s sitcom and the second act more in the style of modern comedies. The actors handle the material and the varied styles flawlessly.

The other “star” of this production is the set. Scenic Designer James Kronzer has put together an amazing construction. A typical 50’s home morphs during intermission into a ramshackle house perfect for destruction. It’s worth bypassing intermission refreshments to watch the stage crew race around the set deconstructing the set for the second act.

The opening night audience found CLYBOURNE PARK to be very funny and darkly entertaining. The enthusiastic applause during the curtain call was a fine tribute to this very solid production. The run of CLYBOURNE PARK has already been extended, so call now for tickets to this interesting and thought-provoking experience.

Written by Bruck Norris
Directed by Edward Sobel
January 26 – March 25, 2012 (extended run)
Arden Theater Company
40 N. 2nd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106


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