The Arden Theatre Company continues its season with Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner, Clybourne Park.
Norris’ play gets its inspiration from Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama Raisin in the Sun. Raisin (which is based on a court case involving Hansberry’s family) is a landmark work in American theater history. When it debuted in 1959, it was the first play to appear on Broadway (where Clybourne Park is already scheduled to perform) written by an African-American woman and directed by an African- American man (Lloyd Richards). The Broadway production was also notable for Sidney Poitier’s tour-de-force performance as a young black man with entrepreneurial dreams.
Clybourne Park also explores the topic of racism, but Norris’ story begins where Raisin ends. It is 1959 and we’re in the living room of the home at 406 Clybourne St. Russ (a terrific David Ingram) and his wife, Bev (the excellent Julia Gibson), have already sold the home to the Younger family and are preparing to move nearer to Russ’ new job. Assisting with the chores is the couple’s black maid, Francine (Erika Rose), and her husband, Albert (Josh Tower). Also on hand are the local minister (Steve Pacek in a marvelous performance) and a racist neighbor, Karl (Ian Merrill Peakes), accompanied by his wife, Betsy (the incomparable Maggie Lakis). Karl is there to voice his concern that the home has been sold to a black family, arguing (in a spectacular display of flawed logic) that their arrival will disrupt the neighborhood and lead to a decrease in home values.
In Act II, 50 years have passed and the once all-white neighborhood is now primarily black. A white couple named Steve and Lindsey (nicely played by Peakes and Lakis) have just purchased the home, and like the Younger family 50 years earlier, not all the neighbors welcome their arrival. The difference is that this time the objections belong to a black female resident named Lena (Rose). Lena raises concerns about changes Steve and Lindsey want to make to the home’s exterior, but we sense her protestations have more to do with preserving the neighborhood’s racial demographic than architecture.
Director Edward Sobel doesn’t impose his own vision on Park. Absent of any unnecessary flourishes or embellishments, his straightforward direction focuses all our attention on Norris’ impressive script, which is notable for its strong sense of place. The house at 406 Clybourne St. is more than just a structure; it is an artifact, a piece of history, and in the eyes of Lena, an important symbol of one family’s (and by extension an entire race’s) struggle for equality and a piece of the American Dream. However, the house’s interior tells a very different story. While the home itself represents history and a sense of permanence, the unpacked boxes that litter the living room in Acts I and II are a reminder that change is constant and inevitable, even when it may be (as it for some of the play’s characters) as unwelcome as it is threatening.
In this satisfying complex play in which the characters alternately attempt to either preserve history or bury the past, Norris succeeds in reinforcing the significance of Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. In the end, Norris shows that despite the desire of many Americans to move on and ignore our nation’s sometimes shameful past, the ghosts of history continue to haunt us.
Through March 25. $29-$45. Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org