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Opinion: ‘Clybourne Park’ staggeringly impactful

May 9, 2013
By SARAH REED - Special to the Weekender , The Herald-Star

Multitudes of cardboard boxes, an artwork turned on its side and clothing lain neatly across the top of a couch confront audiences as they enter the disarrayed, yet inviting living room of Bev and Russ Stoller , who are in the midst of relocating from their home in Chicago's Clybourne Park neighborhood.

With two days before they move out completely, the Stollers are shouldering a great deal of scrutiny, especially from their friends, as they prepare to entrust their home to an African-American family, an action which is deemed scandalous to this 1959 Caucasian community. Blackened by a chilling family tragedy, Bev and Russ' final days at their residence are touched by more than the issue of racism, however. Even with the evolution of time and culture, the historical significance of the transaction and Bev and Russ' personal agony continue to stagnate the dwelling 50 years later.

A cast of a mere seven actors portray the 15 people of the past and modern day who are responsible for this story's rich potency.

Brad Bellamy's performance as Russ provides the production with an occasional yet unspeakably welcomed amount of humor as he is first glimpsed eating ice cream directly from the carton, giving tiredly curt responses to his very imposing acquaintances. Underneath Russ' quiet and withdrawn demeanor, Bellamy, emphasized by trembling hands and twitching eyes, reveals a heavily dejected man deeply burdened by the loss of his son and the ceaseless chattering of his wife. Bellamy's second act 2009 role of Dan, a laborer employed to work on the now very dilapidated Clyboure Park home, is contrastingly crusty and loud.

As Bev, Lynne Wintersteller exudes a graceful sophistication. Her persistent banter to her husband about the origins of words and the capitals of certain countries piteously suggests a woman in deep need of constantly occupying her mind, as does her desire to entertain her neighborhood friends. When Wintersteller's Bev is involved in discussions about those of differing races, she becomes unsettlingly condescending while maintaining her natural refined manner, adding a disquieting edge to her interpretation. As Kathy, the adult daughter of Bev's neighbors Betsy and Karl, who in 2009, is present as a lawyer to hear a dispute about the house's future, Wintersteller exudes a sturdy presence.

With perceptively searching eyes, Megan Hill brings tenderness to her portrayal of the Stoller's deaf and pregnant friend Betsy, while Tim McGeever exudes an awesome nearly stifling pomposity as Karl, her husband, who is adamantly opposed to allowing an African-American family to occupy his friends' home. Act II sees Hill and McGeever paired once again as husband and wife, only Hill is now a contemporary highly emotional, pregnant, working woman named Lindsey, who expresses immense opinions, especially those pertaining to the offensiveness of racial jokes. McGeever's Steve glimmers with the remnants of his Act I character's arrogance, but allows a more relaxed and youthful air to surface as he rattles off an off-color joke and opinions galore.

The strongly strained inflections and exaggerated gratefulness and humility of Chandra Thomas' Francine, the Stoller's African-American maid, thoroughly depict a woman strangulated by and anxious to escape from her employers' personal tensions. Thomas also proves momentously powerful as her Francine listens helplessly to the racial hatred flying about her in her place of employment and attempts to combat her hurt when asked hypothetically if she would ever think to move into Clybourne Park. Thomas' performance, in Act II, as Lena, a young woman who holds an important connection to the history of the residence as the great-niece of one of the original African-American owners of the Stoller home, whom the audience never sees, brings a snappy and extremely determined and boiling attitude to her portrayal, as Lena faces Hill and McGeever's Lindsey and Steve who wish to buy and tear down the historical building. As Thomas' spouse throughout, Bjorn DuPaty, with a pleasant face and attitude, allows subservience to infiltrate Albert, his first act character, and a more outgoing and businesslike sense characterize his performance of Kevin, while keeping a certain intelligence about both roles.

Undertaking three roles, Jared McGuire first imprints the production with his rousingly provocative interpretation of Jim, a nervously chatty and extremely interfering pastor. Second, McGuire lends similar qualities of haughtiness as well as a self-important businesslike quality to his modern-day character Tom, a lawyer hired by Lena and Kevin to negotiate the proceedings. Finally, after causing an extreme emotional stir, especially as Jim, McGuire leaves a heartbreaking last impression as Kenneth, Bev and Russ' disturbed ex-soldier son.

The Pittsburgh Public's production of playwright Bruce Norris' and director Pamela Berlin's "Clybourne Park," which will move out of the O'Reilly Theater May 19, will not allow spectators to experience its journey with comfort.

Almost from the beginning, Norris' highly heated subject matter and character interactions create a world that grips the heart and mind with intense and unrelenting ferocity, save for a few brief moments of humor.

Though at times it is easy to lose important basic plot points as various characters shout over each other, the emotional passion of the production's superbly talented cast and the severity of the drama's themes are not undermined, resulting in a theatrical experience that holds the potential to elicit a strong outward response as well as a very certain inward reaction.

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