The more things change, the more they remain the same.
That's one conclusion you might draw from “Clybourne Park,” an excellent SNAP Productions dramedy about race relations and real estate that opened Thursday at SNAP/Shelterbelt.
Strong character acting under director M. Michele Phillips, Bill Van Deest's cleverly designed set that fills the tiny theater and a script that manages to be hilarious, moving and substantive (not an easy combination) make this show well worth catching — but only if you can tolerate a healthy dose of profanity.
The Pulitzer-winning play is set in the Chicago house purchased by the Younger family from Lorraine Hansberry's classic 1959 drama “A Raisin in the Sun.” The Younger family is black. The neighborhood is white.
Playwright Bruce Norris cleverly riffs on “Raisin” by placing the first act in 1959. White neighbor Karl, with his deaf, pregnant wife, and a minister try to talk the home's owners out of selling to the Youngers. But owners Bev and Russ have issues of their own. Their son died in this house.
In Act 2, the same actors play new characters 50 years later. A white couple wants to tear down the house in a now black neighborhood. Residents fear gentrification could make the area unaffordable. The “Raisin” connection remains in Lena, a great-niece of the Younger matriarch who speaks for the neighborhood.
While the characters in Act 2 are initially more guarded in expressing concerns than those in 1959, the politically correct facades are eventually ripped away to expose stubbornly divisive issues of race, class and personal security. Yes, there has been progress in 50 years, but the chasm of fear and prejudice is still deep.
Norris also has some fun with the communication gap between husbands and wives of both races, another problem that feels eternal.
While the first act, perhaps more subtly character-based, did not draw as many loud laughs, the comedy was there to defuse tension. Act 2 sends the laugh track soaring as outrageous behavior combines with outrageous punch lines.
But the mood often turns serious on a dime, and the transitions felt quite believable at a Wednesday preview.
Act 2 echoes Act 1, and both echo “Raisin.” Brilliant.
So is this cast. Noah Diaz is a standout as the upset neighbor in Act 1 and the home buyer in Act 2, triggering laughs with rat-a-tat line readings and clever characterization. Colleen O'Doherty impresses with the contrast of his two very different wives.
Jennifer Gilg and Scott Working give finely calibrated performances as the troubled homeowners in Act 1. She's the traditional housewife trying to hold the lid on, he a hand grenade set to explode. Gilg is also a pistol in Act 2 as the buyers' lawyer.
Echelle Childers shines brightest in Act 2 as the protesting neighbor whose patience is finally exhausted, though she's also excellent as Bev's maid in Act 1. L. James Wright is terrific as her husbands, who do not please the wife in either act.
Craig Bond, as a very uncomfortable minister caught in the middle, and Matthew Hemingway, in a cameo as Bev and Russ's son, confirm there are no weak links in Phillips' cast.
The show runs about two hours, plus intermission, and ranks with the season's best comedies to date.
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