Arts & Culture

‘Clybourne Park’ pulls together all the elements of good theater

In the history of theater, only two plays have won the triple crown of theatrical awards: the Pulitzer, the Tony and the Lawrence Olivier. They are David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which will be performed by Lakewood Playhouse this season, and Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” now playing at Harlequin Productions in Olympia.

“Clybourne Park” is not a sequel but a spinoff from Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” about a black family’s experiences in a Chicago subdivision. “Clybourne Park” begins when “Raisin” ended in 1959. Bev and Dan (Nikki Visel and Phillip Keiman) have sold their home to a black family (the Younger family from “Raisin,” although they are not named). A priest (Mark Alford) comes calling, as do their neighbors Karl Lindner (Jason Haws) and his deaf and pregnant wife, Betsy (Maggie Lofquist). Karl is from the neighborhood association, which is trying to prevent the sale from going through, and has just come from an unsuccessful meeting with the buyers. Karl is the only carryover character from “Raisin.”

Bev and Russ were not aware that the new owners are black, nor do they mind. The discussions that ensue are dramatic, frightening and yet hilarious as they both expose and make fun of racial and other societal stereotypes of the 1950s. Things get even stickier when the black maid, Francine (LaVon Hardison), and her husband, Albert (Robert Humes), get drawn into their arguments.

The audience is not granted the indulgence of thinking that we are far beyond such bigotry today because the second act is set half a century later, in 2009, and the ensuing arguments prove that the so-called post-racial society hailed by some following the election of President Barack Obama is skin deep — if it exists at all. In the second act we find ourselves in the same house with a different set of characters, some of whom are related to characters from the first act, and we see that the racial tensions have not disappeared at all.

In place of Bev — who was something of an Edith Bunker type in act one, always trying to appease and be open minded — we have Kathy (Visel), a haughty and “politically correct” white woman whose correctness falls apart under scrutiny. In place of Francine, the black maid who is troubled but solicitous in act one, we have Lena (Hardison), a strong black woman who will not kowtow to anyone. Tensions mount as the white couple prepares to move into the neighborhood, which over the years has become a black community.

Among playwright Norris’ more ingenious strokes is that act two does not so much follow act one as it parallels act one with similar yet different conversations. For example, act one begins with Dan and Bev hilariously arguing over what people from different cities are called — for example, Neapolitans for people from Naples. The second act begins with similar arguments, this time about the names of capital cities. The parallelism of these arguments echoes the parallels of today’s racial and social strife and that of 50 years ago.

Harlequin bills the play as a comedy, and it is bitingly funny. Political correctness is put to the test and fails miserably, not because political correctness is not a good thing, but because nearly every one of these characters is a miserable human being. They are insensitive and tactless. They pretend to be open minded but are not good at hiding their prejudices. What little remains of the masks of decency they wear is stripped away as the second act deteriorates into flinging offensive jokes at one another. The jokes are not only racially offensive, they are also homophobic and misogynistic, and the rejoinders are funnier than the jokes. The playwright does an admirable job of balancing between laughing at and laughing with the characters as he exposes character flaw after character flaw.

The ensemble cast is as strong as any I’ve seen. Each actor does a commendable job of believably embodying totally different characters in each act. Haws proves once again that he is one of the South Sound’s best actors; Lofquist makes deafness uncomfortably yet delightfully funny; Hardison’s metamorphosis from Francine to Lena is astounding; Keiman, a newcomer from Britain, is solid as the gruff and inflexible Dan and funny as Russ, the hired hand. Similar praise is due to Visel, Alford and Humes.

The period costumes by Jocelyne Fowler are spot-on, and she has strategically placed Velcro on some of the costumes to allow for astonishingly fast costume changes.

Linda Whitney has done her usual excellent job of set designing, and the rapid change in the set between acts is made possible by some brilliant engineering by Marko Bujeaud.

Seldom do all of the many elements of good theater come together so completely as in this production. It is no wonder that “Clybourne Park” made the grand sweep of top theatrical prizes.