Seeing Hillbarn Theater’s current production of “Clybourne Park” should be a priority for anyone who wants to think seriously about the role of race relations today and what that means: how it can affect friends, families, institutions and communities – especially those they don’t even have a clue that they are racist.
Playwright Bruce Norris’ smart, timely drama won two plum awards: the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012. Under the strong direction of Phaedra T. Boughton, Hillbarn’s production shows why it deserved that honor.
The play’s first and second acts are 50 years apart, showing how race relations have changed — and how they haven’t. Act 1 takes place in 1959 in an affluent Chicago neighborhood called Clybourne Park, while Act 2 takes place there in 2009.
In Act 1, a middle-aged white couple, the naive Bev (Mary Lou Torre) and her taciturn husband Russ (Ron Dritz) are packing their house in preparation for their move from Clybourne Park.
Although they love their home, they hope to make a fresh start elsewhere because their only child, Kenny, committed suicide in their home. Kenny, a veteran of the Korean War, returned from the war mentally unstable because he had to obey the orders of his senior officers to kill innocent men, women and children.
As the couple packs up, their friend Karl (a riveting Scott Reardon) tells them in a long, winding way that they have—apparently unknowingly—sold their house to a Negro family, not something right in that neighborhood at the time.
Act 2 is set in the same house, now in the midst of a remodel with new paint on some walls, a cool white brick fireplace on one side, and a modern front door. Clybourne Park is now an all-black neighborhood but is slowly undergoing gentrification. A white couple (Reardon and Caitlin Gjerdrum) wants to buy, raze and rebuild the house, but are forced to negotiate local regulations with a black couple (Anju Hyppolite and Ron Chapman) who represent the housing council. The encounter goes horribly wrong when Reardon’s character is prompted to tell a racist, homophobic joke.
It’s unclear why director Boughton decided to have the house renovated in Act 2, rather than having graffiti on the walls and random holes punched through the drywall as the playwright intended.
Furthermore, Eric Olson’s scenic design is nicely done, Pam Lampkin’s costumes are appropriate for the two different time frames, and Ed Hunter’s lighting and Jules Indelicato’s sound all work well.
As difficult as the subject is, it is as relevant today as it was when Norris wrote it. And it’s just as applicable to the San Francisco peninsula as it is to southern Chicago.
“Clybourne Park” runs Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through October 30 at Hillbarn Theater, 1285 E Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. Tickets are $32-$60 at www.hillbarntheater.org or 650-349-6411, ext. 2.