Suburban Dysfunction

ACT Production of Bruce Norris' 'Clybourne Park' Puts New Spin on Timeless Classic

Erik Tomasson/Courtesy

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Unfortunately, I do not get to write about the American Conservatory Theater's production of Bruce Norris' "Clybourne Park" in any mean, nasty and therefore fun way. And it would have been so easy, too. With a few carefully chosen words, I could scare away the masses of theatergoers (hordes, really) whose theatrical evenings depend on the opinions of the Daily Californian.

For instance, I could offer up some misleading taglines to describe the play's premise. How about: "A Raisin in the Sun II: The Comedy!" or "Two hours of unadulterated uncomfortableness!"

But alas, I cannot mislead you. Because although Norris' work is indeed a new take on the themes of Lorraine Hansberry's untouchable "A Raisin in the Sun," dealing unabashedly with the ever-touchy subject of race relations and even sporting some toe-curling racist jokes - despite all these things, or perhaps because of them, this is a wonderful, wonderful show.

What Norris has mastered - and what the cast, under Jonathan Moscone's direction, has executed with the precision of a group of surgeons cutting through a human brain - is the art of uncomfortableness. Of creating a scene that is so awkward, so cringe-worthy, that it seems it could not possibly get any worse, when, all of a sudden, it does.

The play begins in the 1959 living room of Russ and Bev Stoller, played by Anthony Fusco and Rene Augesen. They are packing up their Chicago home to move to a suburb outside the city and away from the painful memories of their son's death. A neighbor comes to warn them that their real estate agent has chosen (the horror!) an African American family to buy their home. Cue an awful yet hilarious scene showcasing the delicate yet clumsy dance of white people in the '50s trying to talk about race while maintaining a facade of civility.

In the next act, the scene has jumped forward 50 years to 2009, where a white couple has been petitioned by the now African-American community of Clybourne Park to halt the demolition and reconstruction of the same home. Although the costumes and the hair show the passing of 50 years' time, not much has changed in terms of peoples' inability to talk about race.

The precision of the cast is remarkable. At the slightest pitch from Norris' script - a simple "yeah" or a nervous laugh - the stage transforms with the cast's tiny reactions in a moment of irresistible synchronization. The physicality of Richard Thieriot as Karl, the "concerned neighbor" (racist), provides the stage with a supercharged discomfort, as he wipes his brow and adjusts his glasses with every "um" and "er."

Rene Augesen, playing Bev the 1950s housewife, creates a character that is maddeningly difficult to pin down with any sort of satisfying moral judgement. The viewer is torn between wanting to slap her across the face in one moment and give her a deep, lingering hug in the next.

Every character is ultimately impossible to love or hate - no one is always the bad or the good guy, and everyone is dependent on everyone else. The unbearable wife is also the heartbroken mother, the pushy lawyer also the offended minority. The point, then, is the same as that of the play as a whole - people, like books, can't be judged by their covers.


Hannah Jewell is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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