SALT LAKE CITY — It is a shame that Clybourne Park play doesn’t take place in Utah. The 3-hour flight to Chicago seems like it could be too large a buffer between the drama onstage and our hometown crowd. The themes aren’t alien, but the setting might provide an excuse for audience members to distance themselves from the razor edge comedy at Pioneer Theatre Company.
The play opens on Bev (Celeste Ciulla) and Russ (David Manis) who have just sold their home in a fictional neighborhood of 1959 Chicago. They receive a visit from their local clergyman (Kasey Mahaffy), as well as their neighbor Karl (Brian Normoyle) and his deaf wife Betsy (Tarah Flanagan). Karl reveals that the family purchasing the home is Black and, fearing property values will drop if they move in, does his best to convince Bev and Russ to back out of the deal. The brutally incompetent way that they talk about and around race drives that comedy of the show. The contributions of their maid Francine (Erika Rose) and her husband Albert (Howard W. Overshown) increase the tension of the situation that the neighbors deal with as they try to convince Bev and Russ to stay.
Act Two jumps forward to 2009 when the now gentrified neighborhood organization meets to discuss the plans Steve (Normoyle) and Lindsey (Flanagan) have to remodel the recently purchased the now surprisingly trashed home. In the past 50 years, Clybourne Park has become a completely Black neighborhood. The discussion of housing codes quickly uncovers resentment from both parties as it evolves into one of racial issues. Caution and politeness are abandoned to the chaos of rape being funny, and racist jokes littered with innuendo and profanity can’t help but erupt riotous and guilty laughter from the audience.
Director Timothy Douglas guides a powerhouse ensemble with honesty and nuance as the performers manage touchy themes through humor and sensitivity. Playwright Bruce Norris is deliberate in his withholding of not just details, but major plot points from the audience until they absolutely have to know them. Douglas has full control of the dynamic Norris puts in place and his actors have complete trust in the direction he takes them. For example, the opening scene is so full of subtext as Russ sits in his armchair finishing off the Neapolitan ice cream since it can’t be packed in the suitcase. The perfectly kept Bev patters around the room with a gentile banter that would make Martha Stewart proud. Yet, something is amiss. They just don’t seem to fit. And that’s completely the intent of the playwright and artistic team. There is a tremendous amount of care to withhold just enough information from the audience.
George Maxwell’s scenic design is, well, transformative. During the brief 15-minute intermission the stage ages fifty years leaving me (and probably many other audience members) baffled at just how it was all done so quickly. Thankfully, PTC has a video online revealing just what a feat it was. Carol Wells-Day is incredible for costuming two such drastically different periods. There’s a great sense of balance her color and fabric choices. Particularly dramatic is the switch for Celeste Ciulla between the characters of Bev—the suburban housewife—to Kathy—the white couples attorney in Act Two.
I imagine Chicago audiences watching this play for the first time. How would they react to their own racist history being played out onstage? Nervous breaths and guilty glances, a sort of wariness for what’s to come? I think I just wished for a little more of that palpable dread that should accompany a biting satire like Clybourne Park. Nevertheless, Pioneer Theatre Company has selected an excellent play to show to Utah audiences, and the care and thought invested into the production is evident in every moment.