Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Approximately one hour passes in two afternoons in one living room in two different years separated by fifty years. In the first act, stacked and over-flowing boxes amid rather ugly, 1950s-green wallpaper clue us in to an imminent move by homeowners Bev and Russ from their 1959 Chicago, all-white suburb. Spousal chitter-chatter and innocent-enough familial poking and joking increasingly reveal underlying unease, worry, and tension that reside within their home. Phone calls and doorbells soon fill the air and the room with the likes of long-time, domestic help Francine; minister Jim; and neighbor Karl and his about-to-pop, pregnant wife Betsy. Subjects still too raw for open conversation are delicately danced around with small talk, side conversations, and nervous laughter. But there is a mission in the drop-ins that is more than just wishing bon voyage to Bev and Russ; and the bomb that drops sets ablaze raw nerves, pent-up anxieties, and deeply held prejudices that cause the audience to squirm, look around embarrassed, and lower eyes in a "that's-never-what-I-ever-thought" manner.
Fifty years later, in 2009, another group of to-be neighbors gather in the same room, now boarded-up, graffiti-marred, and rubbish-decorated. Things begin politely enough with small talk about favorite trips taken, overly serious debates of "what is the capital of Morocco?," and a bit-too-excited recognitions of "Oh, I know him, too!" As in the 1959 scene, phone calls and people come and go to everyone's exasperation; temperatures and tensions strangely rise in the room; and opponents begin seriously to battle about a changing neighborhood with weapons no one meant to use upon entering. And once again, as audience members find themselves laughing, they more often than not also shudder in some secret horror of "How can I really find what he just said to be so funny?" Things become especially uncomfortable when everyone on stage begins one-upping the others with the jokes we may have all once told or heard.
Jeanie Smith has taken Bruce Norris' script and masterfully directed the play in such a way that it not once, but twice lures us as audience to laugh at hilarious squabbles and quirky habits of everyday life and then dares us to keep chuckling as the jokes and joking take on all-too-familiar subjects we had just soon not hear or talk about. Ms. Smith capitalizes on Mr. Norris' witty opening in each of the acts to engage us and bring us into the living room as participants in the conversations at hand (not unlike those we might sometimes have). She then introduces sudden breaks in conversation, pregnant pauses, and rapid switches in focus to another part of the room to put us on edge for some yet-unknown reason. Finally, she orchestrates a series of revelations, accusations, and breakdowns to catch us off guard, knock us around, and force us to confront our own discomforts about subjects we did not mean to think about tonight. How different do we believe people of different races are? How diversified in reality versus what we claim to ourselves is our set of friends (or is the Palo Alto audience sitting around us)? What old tapes still reside deep inside us, ready to replay at any given moment by some surprising stimulus and to resurface prejudices we thought long gone?
But a director's prowess is only as good as the cast she has assembled and, to a person, Ms. Smith has put together a powerhouse for this production. Each doubles in the two acts and two time periods as different people, creating personalities, habits, and mindsets that are entertainingly and disturbingly similar to each other. Todd Wright is act one's Russ, a tall, big-framed man whose grunting "Yeps," awkward and jerky movements, and wildly imposing eyebrows speak volumes in expressing his impatience with wife and life and his deep sense of loss on many levels. He returns as a self-proclaimed "bull in a china shop" utility worker in act two to bring needed moments of relief and levity just when nerves on stage and in the audience are about to explode. Bev, playing his wife in act one, is the let-me-just-keep-talking-no-matter-what Betsy Kruse Craig, who tries so hard to be the good-natured peacekeeper but whose countenance of worried lines and side glances show that she knows things are about to go downhill all around her. Her periodic blank looks into space also tell entire volumes about a woman who has endured much pain and who is clearly searching for an answer to make the present and the future better than the past.
A silly-cackling minister, Jim, in act one who has found room in his reverent soul for concluding that the races are inherently different and should remain separated ("After all, we have an organ in our church ... They have a piano and sometimes even tambourines"), Casey Robbins represents disgruntled neighbors in the later act as the antsy, slightly annoying lawyer Tom, with syrupy empathy that is void of genuineness. Damaris Divito and Fred Pitts are wife and husband in both acts, each time she being the edgier of the two, just waiting for the right moment to speak her truthfirst as African-American, domestic servant Francine and then as petitioning-against-planned-construction neighbor Lena. Her two husbands, Albert and Kevin, are both easygoing and amiable enough; but when each gets pushed past the point of being able to be nice, Mr. Pitts uses his naturally tall and imposing frame to test our own inner stereotypes of what a big, African-American male might do at that moment.
Kelley Rinehart has the pleasure of being pregnant in 1959 and in 2009, the first time as fly-on-the-wall deaf Betsy, wife of a caustic neighborhood crusader Karl, and the second, as one half of a couple seeking to move into a shifting neighborhood to build their over-sized house. In the latter role, Ms. Rinehart's Lindsey is at first just vulnerable enough to be noticed in her delicate condition and later determinedly firm and furious enough to expose layers of dormant prejudices that are all too familiar.
Rounding out the stellar cast but standing out in singular fashion for a knockout performance is the husband of Betsy and Lindsay, Michael Rhone. First as Karl, he is a white neighbor trying to stop a house sale to an African-American family, and then second as Steve, he is a white guy moving into a run-down, African-American community with grand plans of gentrification. As both men, Mr. Rhone works himself into spastic rants, stuttering with intensity and becoming almost manic as his sense of self-righteousness increases. Hands with fingers frozen in spread position flail wildly as in each act as he digs himself deeper and deeper into graves of ingrained stereotypes of the world around him. And all along, we shudder at times to hear some of our own, past-spoken words and phrases coming from his mouth.
People leave Clybourne Park shaking their heads, looking a bit shell-shocked, while still finding themselves laughing at some of the lines and situations. While American Conservatory Theatre offered an outstanding Bay Area premiere in 2011, Palo Alto Players has chosen exactly the right time to revive on a Bay Area stage this equally powerful production of a play whose questions and messages may be more relevant today than ever before. Just look at any current San Francisco Chronicle and read about residents in the Mission District being outraged by the so-called well-meaning developers who are building much needed housing for mostly white, millennial high-tech-ers while displacing second-and-third Mexican American families. Clybourne Park provides us with much fodder for conversations we more than ever need to have.
Palo Alto Players continues its production of Clybourne Park through November 22, 2015, at Lucie Stern Center in Palo Alto, 1305 Middlefield Road. Tickets are available online at http://www.paplayers.org or by calling 650-329-0891.