Lee Ernst and Jenny
McKnight in the Milwaukee Rep's "Clybourne Park." (photo by Michael
Taken by itself, the first 20 minutes of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park might be mistaken for an unremarkable episode of Leave It to Beaver. A family is moving. Russ, the father, sits in his favorite chair in a living room full of moving boxes, paging through a National Geographic and eating ice cream from the cardboard container. His wife, Bev, flutters around the room in classic sit-com fashion: pale blue, print dress with shoes to match; crisp, white, eyeleted apron neatly tied around the waist; hair lacquered in a perfect up-do. The conversation seems unremarkable: Why is the ice cream called “Neapolitan”? After Naples, Italy? And how did they decide what to call natives of other lands—Muscovites? Mongolians? Parisians?
It all seems like so much dramatic wheel-spinning until you look back at it from the powerful conclusion of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s stellar production. Chuckling over the world maps in the magazine is the family’s only refuge from the encroaching “Other” out there—the world of strange-sounding cities, odd customs and strange foods. As we learn, the larger world has already touched their lives through war. And the walls of their neat, Mission-style Chicago home are soon to be subject to a different sort of attack.
As winner of several major awards—including the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and 2012 Tony Award and 2011 London’s Olivier Award for Best New Play—Clybourne Park has been on my radar for a while. But nothing prepared me for the dark—sometimes satirical—power of the play I saw Saturday afternoon. In plays like The Infidel and The Pain and the Itch, which I saw at Steppenwolf Theatre, Norris shows his knack for dark comedy that is both funny and fearless. But Clybourne Park takes a quantum leap forward in both craft and concept. Norris has always had a knack for laying bare the unsavory core that lies beneath middle-class propriety and liberal-minded civility. And in focusing on America’s racial attitudes, Norris scores a surgical strike that burrows deep into the heart of the heartland.
To work, Clybourne Park requires a finely-tuned style, and director Mark Clements executes it perfectly. The first act, set in 1959, bathes us in the easy familiarity of The Cleavers, sure, but it also plays on our universal nostalgia for that time, an ordered, Suburb-on-the-Hill life that is still a part of everyday political conversations. As Russ, Lee Ernst is the strong and silent pater familias, sunk into his easy chair as if his body has taken root. Bev, played by Jenny McKnight, hovers about the room, her hands nervously dancing in front of her as if she’s lost without a feather duster. But even as both Ernst and McKnight play at the sit-com stereotypes, they hint at the pain that is buried beneath the façade.
This actorly depth works in the second act as well. Fifty years later, the house is now derelict and unoccupied, and the subject of negotiations between a neighborhood association bent on preserving the area’s history and a young couple who want to build their behemoth dream house on the lot (a stroll through some of Chicago’s North Shore neighborhoods will attest to the reality of this phenomenon). As the prospective owner, Steve, Gerard Neugent draws on a similar sense of familiarity—he’s a friendly, brash and no-nonsense Chicago guy who seems to work and play well with others. But Neugent also gives us hints of the tenacious tribalism that lies underneath. And when the politically correct veneer is stripped away, he and the rest of the characters step into the ring with the gloves off.
There is no shortage of gleeful, hard-hitting parody in entertainment these days. And for all of Clybourne Park’s scathing brilliance, Norris’s true masterstroke goes beyond the satire. The elegiac conclusion to the play, which I won’t reveal here, shows us the high stakes of the great American Experiment. More profound than a simple can’t-we-just-get-along plea, it hints at the vulnerabilities in every heart, and the challenges we face as the world becomes more brave and new with each passing day.