IMAGE: Russ (Michael Kharfen) and Bev (Julie Zito) in Clybourne Park at the Sliver Spring Stage. Photo by Harvey Levine.
REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE
When they are on their game, the folks at Silver Spring Stage produce superlative theater, making you wonder how anyone else could do it better.
With their present production of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, running through July 17, they are at the top of their game.
First, the story. We are in the house at 406 Clybourne Street, in the Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park. We see two episodes, fifty years apart.
The first takes place in 1959, as the house is about to change hands.
A white middle-class family is selling and moving up. The husband enthuses about his new work situation, with a huge corner office and a six-and-a-half minute commute – upward mobility heaven.
But there’s a problem, and it has to do with the buyers. You see, they are … Negro, colored – pick your euphemism – and the good (white) citizens of Clybourne Park are concerned.
Left to right: Francine (Gayle Carney), Albert (Brad Eaton), Jim (David Gorsline). Photo by Harvey Levine.
The local Rotarian mouthpiece drops in to voice the neighborhood’s collective angst about the sale and to suggest a possible work-around to avert impending ruin.
But the owner stands fast, insisting that the deal is done. Undeterred, the Rotarian pushes for a collective consensus that people should live with their own kind. He even tries to enlist the family’s colored maid as an accomplice to push his twisted thesis.
The seller retorts with a bitter grudge about how the right-thinking citizens of the community responded when his son came back from the Korean War with a shadow on his record, showing him everything but acceptance, and causing him to take his life.
Act Two. Fast-forward fifty years: same house, worked over by graffiti artists, but still retaining some grace and solidity, and once again about to change hands.
This time, the buyers, a young couple seeking the central urban lifestyle and an escape from a crushing suburban commute, are white. The sellers, a solid middle-age couple, poised to take advantage of a seller’s market in the now-trendy neighborhood, are black.
The house needs work, and the young buyers have proposed changes that are just too radical for the (black) neighbors, who insist that the modifications will threaten the “historic character” of the neighborhood.
Racism in reverse?
That’s the question. In Act Two, it gets a thorough workout.
Left to right: Steve (Matthew P. Gallant), Lindsey (Paige Fridell), Lena (Gayle Carney), Kathy (Julie Zito). Photo by Harvey Levine.
You can think of Clybourne Park as a ritualistic dance around a forbidden subject that no one dares to address until a flash point is reached – when everything blows up catastrophically.
The dance is masterfully done, the cast, exceptional. I’ll give you my favorites, but they’re only mine; you have every right to yours.
Matthew P. Gallant’s Karl is the smooth, self-evident Rotarian who gives persuasive voice to the neighborhood’s collective fears. He posits that, as properties change hands, one after another – because, once this kind of thing starts, how can it be stopped? – those unfortunates who haven’t picked up and fled will be handed a “fairly worthless bag.”
Or Gayle Carney’s Francine, the family’s dutiful maid, gamely resisting Karl’s ploy to enlist her as a complicit mouthpiece for separate-but-equal neighborhood integrity.
Or Julie Zito as Bev, the ultimate 1950’s housewife (high heels on a Saturday afternoon?), whose shimmering surface conceals deep, unhealed wounds.
Or David Gorsline as the long-suffering realtor, struggling like Sisyphus to get all the interested parties past page three of the contract.
Or Brad Eaton’s Albert, landing too-sharp observations on the snowballing hypocrisy with the timing and impact of an Ali counterpunch.
Or Paige Fridell in an amazing turn as Betsy, Karl’s deaf wife, expressing her suppressed self in poignant near-words.
Finally, and most powerfully, Michael Kharfen’s bluff, magisterial Russ, giving voice to his principles and his demons with ferocious humanity.
Dan (Michael Kharfen). Photo by Harvey Levine.
Compelling performances, all – and I’ve only described half of them, because all actors but one play dual roles. Orchestrating them and bringing Norris’s scintillating script to life require an exceptional directorial hand.
Seth Ghitelman, take a bow.
Ghitelman has shaped and timed the scenes so compellingly that you can actually enjoy watching people waste time, in all the ways that people waste time in real life: filling gaps with polite questions about how long the commute is, or when the baby is due; wandering off to the garden on the cell phone just as the lady of the house is about to say what she really wants to say to everyone; and endlessly quibbling about what the capital (new, not old) of Morocco is.
I won’t try to predict what you’ll take from the play. There are many possibilities: that racism is insidious and self-rationalizing; that all the gimmicks we use to lubricate our social interactions only serve to mask feral, antgonistic instincts; that everybody really hates at least one thing about people who aren’t their own.
Nothing is certain – not even the capital of Morocco – so come and make up your own mind.
A note on the language: polite early on, it gets very rough in the clinches.
By Bruce Norris; directed by Seth Ghitelman; produced by Pauline Griller-Mitchell; set by Maggie Modig; costumes by Harlene Leahy; lighting by Bill Strein; sound by Roger Stone. At Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. June 24 – July 17. Fri-Sat: 8 pm; Sun 2 pm (July 10 and 17). Running time: 2 hrs 15 min (including one 15-min intermission).
Cast: Michael Kharfen, Julie Zito, Gayle Carney, David Gorsline, Brad Eaton, Matthew P. Gallant, Paige Fridell, Win Britt