CLYBOURNE PARK: exceptional actors exceed the exhausting demands of their roles

THE 5 & DIME THEATRE COMPANY REVIEW

Jacksonville’s 5 & Dime Theatre Company opened “Clybourne Park,” written by Bruce Norris, on July 31, 2015 at The Cummer Museum. The play, which received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a 2012 Tony for Best Play, will continue for three more performances during August 7 – 9. If you plan on going, we recommend ordering tickets at www.The5andDime.org, since the first weekend sold out. The website also offers tickets for a brunch/dinner option at the Cummer Café before the show.

If the title sounds familiar, you may recall Lorraine Hansberry’s Tony-nominated play “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which a widowed African-American purchases a home for her family in Clybourne Park, a white neighborhood in Chicago. The Tony-nominated play debuted in 1959 and has become a stage classic.

Mr. Norris’s play begins in 1959 in the interior of a house in Clybourne Park. Homeowners Russ (Dave Allan Thomas) and his wife Bev (Amy Noel Canning) are busy packing up to move as they have sold their home. A young parish priest, Jim (Pablo Milla), arrives, first counseling Russ and then adding that he does not think it a good idea to sell the property.

Karl (Josh Waller), a neighbor and an outspoken member of the neighborhood association, arrives with his wife Betsy (Lindsay Curry), intending to pressure the family to cancel the sale for the sake of the neighborhood and its property values. He has learned that unknown to Russ and Bev, their real estate agent has sold the home to a black family. He argues that black and white racial mixing is bad for everyone concerned.

An almost violent argument ensues. Russ does not care about the neighborhood or the people who live there; he and Bev want to move to escape painful memories. His son, a Korean veteran dishonorably discharged for having killed civilians while attempting to complete his assignment, committed suicide in this home and Russ feels no loyalty to the neighbors who ostracized his son when he returned home.

The family’s black maid Francine (Rhodie Jackson) and her husband Albert (Larry Knight), who has come to take her home after work, somewhat reluctantly become involved in the shouting and rising tempers that erupt. The priest and the impassioned segregationist and his wife leave with no satisfactory resolution for their demands that the neighborhood must remain white-only. Thus ends a very interesting first act in which the playwright lets his characters interact and reveal themselves.

Act Two begins in 2009 in the same house, which has been owned and occupied for the past fifty years by various relatives of the black family who bought the property from Russ and Bev. During the intermission, while the audience was out enjoying beverages and looking at art, Stage Manager Emilee Estep and Assistant Stage Manager Brandon Paris have changed the formerly neat home into a rundown property, defaced and in need of repainting and repairs.

The actors are back from Act One, but as different characters, who are meeting to discuss plans for renovation of the house. One additional actor, Brandon Paris as Kenneth, arrives at the play’s end in a cameo role. The neighborhood in 2009 is now predominately black and the dwelling has been sold to Steve (Josh Waller) and Lindsey (Lindsay Curry). The new owners and Kathy, (Amy Noel Canning), their attorney, are in a heated discussion with Lena (Rhodie Jackson) and Kevin (Larry Knight), a black couple, who are representatives of the current Home Owners Association. Lena’s great-aunt previously owned the home, and she cherishes memories of playing there as a child. The couple has brought Tom (Pablo Milla), the lawyer for the association, along with them.

Lena is adamantly opposed to the expansion plans of Steve and Lindsey, as she fears enlarging and upgrading the house will contribute to inflated real estate prices, with many poorer long-time residents forced to move elsewhere. The discussion, which started off in a friendly chatty manner, becomes loud, angry, and filled with shouting. An exchange of attacks by both couples includes racial jokes and sexist remarks and contains adult language.

The play ends with an accidental and unexpected discovery by Dan (Dave Allan Thomas), a construction worker, that we will let you discover when you see this play.

The play was directed by director/actor Rick De Spain whose career in Jacksonville began in 1982 with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at Theatre Jacksonville. He is one of the many fine educators who are responsible for all the fine young talent in our community theatres as he is on the faculty of La Villa School of the Arts. De Spain’s work creates a dilemma for critics: he is so good at both acting and directing we can’t decide which we enjoy most. In recent years he has been on the stage in “Pittman Players” and “A Picasso.” This fall, he is directing the musical “Working” at Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre.

For “Clybourne Park,” De Spain has cast exceptional actors who meet and exceed the exhausting demands of their roles. As critics, we cannot recall when we have seen a production with so many award-winning actors, who have had leading roles in plays which included “Dog Sees God,” “Othello,” “The Odd Couple,” “Lettice and Lovage,” “Les Misérables,” ”The Lyons,” and “Death of a Salesman.”

The excellent set was designed by Tom Fallon for this 140 seat theatre at the Cummer Museum. This intimate space puts the audience a heartbeat away from the action.

Thematically, the production is related to the Cummer’s current exhibit “Whitfield Lovell: Deep River”, a multi-media installation inspired by the legacy of African-Americans who fled from slavery, which will remain on view through September 13, 2015.

This cutting satiric comedy has a great deal of humor, only a few moments of it X-rated. The play reminds us that the world has changed and continues to do so. Looking at the current events in the world, it is an important reflection on racial discord.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.
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