Review: Is home where the heart is? ‘Clybourne Park’ at Colonial Playhouse

By Ellen Wilson Dilks

Aldan’s Colonial Playhouse continues their current season with a production of Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park”—an “addendum” of sorts to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun”. Directed by Bill Haburcak, the production runs through March 25 at the Playhouse’s W. Magnolia Avenue venue.

Written as a spin-off to “Raisin,” “Clybourne Park” premiered in February of 2010 at Playwright’s Horizon in New York City, where it subsequently won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.

One cannot review “Clybourne” without considering Hansberry’s semi-autobiographical play from 1959. “Raisin” tells the story of the Youngers, a black family struggling to get by in Chicago’s rough Southside. The family matriarch uses the insurance money left by her late husband to purchase a home in a working class white neighborhood—while her son wants to invest in a get-rich-quick venture. A visit from Karl Linder of the “Clybourne Park” Improvement Association (wherein he offers them money not to move in) makes the family determined to take possession of the house. The events depicted in “A Raisin in the Sun” echo a lawsuit Ms. Hansberry’s father brought in 1940, prior to the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Supreme Court heard the case, however they did not decide in the Hansberry’s favor. Interestingly, the plaintiff in a similar action in 1934 was Olive Ida Burke, who sued on behalf of a property owners’ association to enforce racial restrictions. Her husband, James Burke, later sold a house to Carl Hansberry (Lorraine’s father) when he changed his mind about the validity of the covenant. Possibly influenced by the changing demographics in that neighborhood, Mr. Burke more likely had the realities of the Depression in mind. Housing demand was so low amongst white buyers that Mr. Hansberry might well have been the only purchaser available.

In Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” Act I takes place in 1959 inside what is to become the Younger’s new home. Owners Bev and Russ are grieving the loss of their son Ken; they plan to sell the house to escape bad memories and to try to move on with their lives. In addition to their clergyman Jim, Karl Linder (the character from “Raisin”) and his deaf, pregnant wife Betsy visit.  Upset that the family buying Bev and Russ’ house is black, Karl rants about how their property values will fall considerably. He begs Russ to back out of the deal—awkwardly involving Russ and Bev’s black housekeeper Francine and her husband Albert into the discussion.

The action moves to 2009 in Act II, and the same actors reappear as different characters (in various ways related to characters in Act I).  They are dealing with the sale of the exact same house. “Clybourne Park” has become an all-black neighborhood in the intervening fifty years—one that has an active community (as well as an historic designation), but is now falling victim to “gentrification.”  A white couple, Steve and Lindsay are seeking to buy the house, tear it down and build what we’d now call a “McMansion.” A meeting with the black leaders of the community regarding the restrictions on changes to the property is tense and things soon fall apart.

Colonial’s cast is talented and handles the material well. Rich Geller is very touching in Act I as Russ, the grieving father, giving a nicely restrained performance.  He then does a complete 180 to embody handyman Dan in Act II, creating a very funny turn as a clueless guy who can’t read the signs of tension in a room.  Bonnie Grant balances Geller nicely as Bev in Act I; her portrayal of a June Cleaver-esque 50s housewife is spot-on.  In Act II, she plays Kathy, a very loopy (and oblivious) lawyer.  Grant has solid comedic timing and is fun to watch as someone so oblivious to the fact she has white privilege.

Ben Kerr does a terrific turn as Jim, Russ and Bev’s pastor in Act I, showing the viewer a easygoing guy who just wants everything to be nice.  In Act II, Kerr plays Tom, the attorney for the community.  Again, a nice guy.  He has the thankless task of trying to keep things on point—and fails miserably.

LeAnne Mangano is a strong anchor to the ensemble. She is quiet dignity in Act ! as Francine the housekeeper and then brings to life a strong woman defending the legacy of her family and community as Lena in Act II (she is the great-niece of the Lena Younger character from Raisin).  Daymon Warren is also good in his dual roles as husband to both the above ladies. He handles the challenge of the deferential Albert in Act I with equal aplomb as the successful Kevin in Act II.

JP Timlin is very interesting in both of his roles.  In Act I, he is the uptight and righteous Karl; Timlin’s quirky body language and condescending delivery are perfect.  Act II has him as homebuyer Steve; here he’s that guy at parties who annoys the hell out of you.  Timlin dives right in to the role’s misogynistic, homophobic and racist jokes fearlessly. Steve is a total jerk, but Timlin manages to give him a tad of likeability—not an easy task.  As his wives (deaf Betsy in Act I and Lindsay in Act II), Annaliese Gove is a revelation.  Again, the two characters are polar opposites and Gove handles both extremes wonderfully.

Technical support for the production is well done. Haburcak is a first-time director; for the most part, he handled things well, but there were some blocking kerfuffles that could have been avoided. (I cringe when I think of all the mistakes I made my first time out.)  The set design by Ron Hill and Bruce Warren was a bit confusing—why was there a window between two doorways? However, Hill’s soundscape and lighting design was nicely done.  Joan Bickel has provided great costumes that evoke the correct time period and suit each character.

As to the play itself, I’m not sure what to make of it.  Lorraine Hansberry’s work was groundbreaking. She was the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, the first black person to win New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.  In 1959, this was an amazing thing. “A Raisin In The Sun” was one of the first Broadway plays with a predominantly black cast. Moreover, the story it tells is so unerringly real, portraying a true black experience—that was groundbreaking too. Norris’ work is interesting, but, having seen two productions now, I personally think he’s unfocused, trying to cover too much ground. The story of the grieving couple in Act I is nice, but does it really speak to the situation of neighborhoods changing—and why. Is that change the story he wants to tell?

Act II was more relatable for me in some ways. I’ve seen low-income people driven out of neighborhoods by gentrification. It has happened all over Philadelphia. Bit by bit the working poor, and members of the arts community, have had to leave areas they discovered that were basically slums. They all worked hard to create a community and then suddenly people with money—who have come to the galleries, etc. created in the area—move in and soon the original owners are priced out. It happened in the Art Museum area, Manayunk, parts of S. Philly. And now places like Northern Liberties, Brewerytown and others are potentially the next “hot spots.”  This is an issue ripe for further dramatic exploration, but Norris’ piece devolves into name-calling and bad politically incorrect jokes.  Ultimately, it doesn’t really address gentrification either.  Yet, it won the Pulitzer and several Tonys….  Maybe I’m missing something.  May I suggest you all head over to Colonial to catch a performance of “Clybourne Park.” The performances are all well done, and there are plenty of laughs (but some very ADULT language).  Then, let me know your thoughts on Norris’ message.

If you go: Colonial Playhouse is located at 522 West Magnolia Avenue in Aldan, PA.  For directions, tickets or other information, either call 610-622-5773 or visit www.colonialplayhouse.net