“Clybourne Park”: The Place to Be
Erin Thomassen | Sunday, March 2, 2014
Raisins are not particularly delicious. “A Raisin in the Sun,” a play about a struggling African American family in 1950s Chicago, is not particularly enjoyable. Employing simple steps of logic, it would seem that “Clybourne Park,” a play that is loosely based on “A Raisin in the Sun,” would be about as juicy as dried fruit.
Fortunately, logic has failed here, as it often does in the theatre. Accurately advertised as “a biting comedy about race and real estate,” “Clybourne Park” was both captivating and challenging. As an audience member, it was hard to believe that the actors were college students; they seemed to be either their characters in the flesh, or at the very least Broadway stars.
Between the acts, the setting changed from 1959 to 2009 and the style changed accordingly, from comb-overs to Cubs jerseys and from pin-up curls to pixie cuts. The changing times highlighted the frustrations introduced by technology: in the first act, Bev, a middle-aged housewife played by senior Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) major Renée Roden, answered one phone call, but kept it short and stayed in the room, since the rotary phone was connected to a landline. In the second act, Lena, the audacious African American woman played by Zuri Eshun, was repeatedly interrupted by ringtones and made priceless vexed facial expressions.
In fact, every actor masterfully conveyed their motives and emotions through physical cues. John Corr, a senior FTT major, and Roden truly became Russ and Bev, a middle-aged couple living in a middle-class Chicago suburb. Corr convinced the audience and seemed convinced himself that the half-furnished stage was his home. He embodied a drained and disillusioned WASP, flipping through “National Geographic” and eating spoonful after spoonful of ice cream. He spent much of the first act slouched in his easy chair, looking as if he had sat there every night for thirty years. Roden for her part perfectly captured the purposeless housewife whose anxiety and apparent back-pain stemmed from a need to find a purpose and forget the past.
Roden and Corr proved their versatility in the second act when they transformed into completely different characters. Roden became a conceited lawyer who was repeatedly offended by the off-color jokes about color in the second act, especially one that compared a white woman to a tampon, because they were both “stuck-up.” Corr became a crazed construction worker in the second act, whose swaggering gait, grey beard, and ridiculously loud calls to his fellow construction workers won chuckles from the audience.
Junior Joey Doyle, who played Karl in the first act, then Steve in the second, deserves kudos for his commanding and convincing presence. In both acts, his character seemed to represent white males who are attacked in the modern age for lacking any qualities that would give them minority status. His character dislikes “tap-dancing” around sensitive topics, such as race, sexual orientation, and economic status, and consequently says what other characters prefer to leave implied. Though he tries to bring everything to light, his jokes end up making the play rather dark. It is this darkness, though, that makes the play pointed and profound.
His pregnant wife, played by freshman Sienna Wdowik, is deaf in the first act, thus only communicating with her husband in sign language. She has no idea that her husband is trying to stop a black family from moving into the neighborhood because it would “lower the economic value of the community.” Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and her new character can hear everything that is going on and disagrees with her husband. Wdowik’s change from Betsy to Lindsey seems to represent the changing role of women from the 1950s to the present day. Wives used to only hear what their husbands wanted them to hear, but now they no longer allow their husbands to filter information for them. Wdokwik does a formidable job of transforming from a deaf to determined wife, and her demeanor and haircut is reminiscent of a mature Emma Watson.
Symbolism was not limited to characters; it was sprinkled over objects as well, misting them with meaning. Bev and Russ bickered over who would carry a trunk whose contents are concealed from the audience until the end. The trunk seems to symbolize the burden that Bev and Russ have carried since their son, a Korean War veteran, committed suicide after struggling with having killed innocent citizens. Bev reminds Russ about carrying the trunk, but he replies that it is a “two person job,” implying that he cannot carry the burden on his own. Instead of volunteering to help, Bev indirectly asks Lena and her husband Albert, who was expertly played by both Bryce Wood and Troy Lewis, to bring down the trunk. Even though Russ was not eager to carry the trunk by himself, he is enraged when he sees other people carrying the load for him. In this way, the playwright Bruce Norris ingeniously uses the trunk to represent Russ’ struggle between grief and pride.
In brief, the show was phenomenal, and students should tear their hair out and don sackcloths if they missed it. Not only did the actors deliver a flawless and realistic performance, the material of “Clybourne Park” left the audience with a reminder of the lasting effect of changing demographics and ethnic tensions both in the Chicago suburbs and throughout the United States.