Review: Exquisite ‘Clybourne Park’ in Palo Alto confronts issues of race with humor and heartbreak

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Betsy Kruse Craig as Bev, left, and Fred Pitts as Albert in the Palo Alto Players production of “Clybourne Park,” running through Nov. 22, 2015, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. (Photo by Joyce Goldschmid)

There is sadness in the eyes of Bev.

While she takes in the activity that surrounds her preparation to move out of her house, Bev is devastated to find out that the glowing racist Karl Lindner made an uninvited visit to the projects to visit the Youngers, the black family who just bought the home of Bev and her husband Russ. His visit to the Youngers was as friendly as can be, speaking on behalf of the Clybourne Park Welcoming Committee, with a membership count that seems to be holding at one.

Lindner is clearly thinking about the future of his family, where “black family” seems to be some kind of euphemism for declining home values. And why, just why are Bev and her ice cream-eating, world capitol-knowing husband selling their home under market value in the first place?

The devastation that encompasses Bev is in seeing this ugly racism as it relates to her maid, a woman she considers family. And for Bev, there’s a solution that is beautiful in its simplicity, yet frustrating in its complexity.

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Lindner (Michael Rhone) and Jim (Casey Robbins) in “Clybourne Park” (Photo by Joyce Goldschmid)

“Maybe we should learn what the other person eats. Maybe we should all sit at one big table…”
Her voice trails off, and the devastating truth of 1959 sets in. There will be no dinners of that nature. Two groups of people have no choice, staring at each other across an imaginary bridge that will never connect.

Moments like these fill the stage at the Lucie Stern Theater, where an exquisite Palo Alto Players production of the Bruce Norris 2011 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning “Clybourne Park” is playing.

The play takes place in two distinct times, both connecting to the Lorraine Hansberry classic “A Raisin in the Sun.” Act one takes place just after Lindner (Michael Rhone) leaves the home of the Youngers, unsuccessful at getting them to sell their new home to him and his “investors.” Lindner then lobbies the gruff Russ (Todd Wright) and his wife Bev (Betsy Kruse Craig) not to sell. After all, the safety of Karl’s unborn child with wife Betsy (Kelly Rinehart) hangs in the balance.

Fast forward 50 years to 2009, and that house now sits in a much different neighborhood demographically where Steve (Rhone) and Lindsey (Rinehart), a white couple, are looking to raze the place and build their dream home. The house sits on high end real estate in an all black neighborhood, with its proximity to downtown delectable and gentrification in full swing. The meeting at the house takes place between housing board authorities Lena (Damaris Divito), Kevin (Fred Pitts), multiple lawyers and Dan (Wright), a gruff tree ripper-outer. The meeting gets testy in many moments, driven by Steve’s belief that there is some underlying racism being perpetrated against him. Certainly Lena, who is connected to the house from the original Younger purchase, and her husband Fred are having a hard time seeing how Steve might have suffered from such vicious, soul-sucking oppression as a white male.

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Francine (Damaris Divito) and Albert (Fred Pitts) in “Clybourne Park” (Photo by Joyce Goldschmid)

The play itself is brilliant on a lot of levels, certainly led by the steady directing hand of Jeanie K. Smith, who paced the many poignant and hilarious moments with a great sense of sharpness. What Smith’s direction does so well is effectively pace and unifies the entire ensemble cast.

While there may have been a few acting moments that might have felt a bit too big for the moment they encompassed, what was strongest is how each actor is asked to play two distinct styles of character.

Both Wright and Craig were masterful in their pursuit of the truth. Wright paces the stage with a visceral fury, a man who is clearly holding his heart close to the vest, but a man not blind to the truth of his existence. Craig is a wonderful foil to Wright in act one, and does a wonderful job of stretching, having a distinct difference with each style she takes on in each respective act.

Rhone comes off as effectively smarmy in each act, embodying that person who creates tension in the room every time his mouth opens. Divito and Pitts also showed a gentle sharpness, with Divito’s handling of a crude joke with a perfect blend of offensiveness and hilarity. And Casey Robbins gives strong performances throughout the piece, saving a powerful cameo for the final denouement.

The two plays that make up the whole that is “Clybourne Park” are assisted greatly by Smith’s creative team, led by two distinct sets designed by Patrick Klein. In the play, the house itself, referenced so distinctly in “Raisin,” is another character, in many ways similar to the actors themselves. The house, like the actors, plays two characters, and our reaction to it is reflected in real time. Costumes were handled strongly by Pat Tyler, and Gordon Smith shapes a nice soundscape.

The play is a great combination of humor and grit, and is as timely now as it ever has been. It is a play where characters do an amazing job of talking around each other, because to talk directly to each other is to challenge in ways that are the epitome of discomfort. But without this discomfort, there can be no healing. And without healing, there can be no hope. Or as Bev puts it, “I really believe things are about to change for the better. I firmly believe that.”

In times that are dark, there should always be hope that a glimmer of light is just around the corner.

 WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Palo Alto Players presents “Clybourne Park”
Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by Jeanie K. Smith
The Word: A piece that never loses its timeliness, both the hilarious and heartbreaking are represented well with this excellent production.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through Nov. 22nd
The Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA
Tickets range from $34 – $46
For tickets, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org

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