"Clybourne Park" makes the audience gasp
Courage comes in many forms and styles, but when you have the spine to wrap sadness and danger in a blanket of comedy, you end up with something that is really brave.
That is the case of the stunning production of "Clybourne Park" that opened Friday night at the Milwaukee Rep. If it wasn't for the tears of laughter, the Quadracci Powerhouse would be awash in tears of pain seeing a play that tackles the most dangerous topic of our time and shakes it, stomps on it and gives it a sense of sorrow that has no depth limit.
The topic is race.
As strange as it may sound, this play is a biting comedy about what may well be the most disquieting issue in America: the struggle to come to terms with racial differences.
The first act of the play takes place in 1959, in the home of Russ and Bev, a couple who are about to move and leave behind the sorrow that haunts their home. Their son, who was accused of killing innocent civilians during the Korean War, hanged himself in his bedroom two years earlier.
Russ, magnificently played by Lee Ernst, has withdrawn from life and has spent the two years brooding. His chair, his hopelessness and his intolerant wonder at his wife are his constant companions.
Bev, played by Jenny McKnight, has become a carbon copy of the television mom with apron and snacks and drinks perpetually ready all in a futile effort to get over mourning and get on with some kind of life.
Each is lonely but neither can either recognize or help alleviate the suffering of the other. They are living in different universes.
The first blast of racial tension arrives when it turns out their home is being sold to a black couple. This news is heralded by Gerard Nugent who plays Karl Lindner, Rotarian, father-to-be, and all around guardian of the way things ought to be.
He arrives with his wife, GretaWohlrabe, who is seconds away from giving birth. She is deaf and her deafness is a not-too-subtle note that all of the characters in this play, not one of whom is not a jerk, are equally deaf when someone else is talking.
Russ furiously drives Karl out, along with their pastor, played by Grant Goodman, who has tried to be the voice of reason with a staggering array of cliche and nonsense that leaves him a clergyman without a parishioner in this home.
The early conscience of this menagerie is Marti Gobel who plays the domestic Francine. But when her husband James T. Alfred arrives to pick her up she turns into a demanding and damaging almost-shrew.
The second act of this play moves the story ahead 50 years. Same house. Same actors all playing different characters.
The house has been sold to a white couple who plan to knock it down and build their own mini-mansion on the spot. Once again, the neighborhood is about to undergo change and a black couple who have lived in the area for years, has struck with a petition to shrink the housing plan for the couple who are planning to build.
It is with this backdrop that the most bitter of attacks builds. Everyone attacks everyone else. There are no good guys in this play.
Nobody likes anyone else and once the sparks start to fly over the ignited fire of racial politics and pain, they move from dislike to hatred with nary a stop in between.
Mark Clements, the Artistic Director at the Rep, has directed this play so as to give the audience the choice of wallowing in guilt or wondering why all of this so so funny.
And make no mistake about it. Laughter is the coin of the realm here. With impeccable timing and a wondrous script, this cast manipulates us like a magician. Happy one second and disgusted the next. Marti Gobel tells a joke during the second act that made an entire audience audibly gasp.
The sadness of this play is that it is eloquent testimony to how little progress has been made in healing the racial divide in this country. Sometimes we forget how far apart we really are and "Clybourne Park" is there to remind us.
As each of us searches our own lives to see how best we can make something of the diverse country we live in, it is best left to the batty Bev at the end of the first act.
She sits quietly in the living room of her house which has just been savaged by a tsunami of racial melodrama. Everyone is so certain that what they believe is right and what everyone else believes is wrong.
Bev, always looking for a solution to life's problems, clasps her hands in her lap and wonders aloud.
"Maybe we should learn what the other person eats. That may be a solution."
If only it were that easy.
"Clybourne Park" runs through Feb. 24. Information is available at milwaukeerep.com.
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