Taking the reins of an institution with deep community roots requires chutzpa, maybe even a little swagger, and in such situations, it is my understanding that the prevailing wisdom is to go big or go home. It does not appear that Live Arts’ new artistic director, Julie Hamberg, is headed home any time soon.
Hamberg chose to open the theater’s 22nd season with Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, winner of a Pulitzer and a Tony for best play, among other notable credits. The play premiered just two years ago at Playwrights Horizons, and the Live Arts production is not only the Virginia premiere, but also the world premiere in an amateur theater.
The script is inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, adding a kind of prequel and sequel to a classic American tale of black/white integration. The action unfolds in two parallel moments 50 years apart, in 1959 and 2009, and centers on a house that becomes the focus of racial tension in Raisin.
The first act follows a white family moving out of the house in what was the predominantly white Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park. Across the intervening years between the first and second act, Clybourne Park becomes a black neighborhood, and the second half of the play deals with a white family moving back in, potentially gentrifying the neighborhood. The play has been regularly dubbed a “post-racial farce.”
Bruce Norris is an actor with some pretty respectable credits, and he’s written Clybourne Park to have the hell acted out of it. Each character has a meaty agenda, and they all rub against one another in provocative and unsettling ways. Much fuss is made in the first act over a chafing dish, and chafing is the right word. Nobody’s perfect, there are no heroes or villains, it’s just different kinds of people having a lot of trouble figuring out how to get along with each other.
The real treat, though, is the dialogue. The writing absolutely demands that attention be paid to pace and timing, with its overlapping repartee and steadily ratcheting tension levels. Pace and timing are the foundation of a play’s verisimilitude, the tools that lull an audience into an immersive investment in the life of the play, applied as a nearly indecipherable understanding between director, ensemble, and text. In the case of Clybourne Park, I felt transported.
Every actor plays two parts, one in each act. Chris Patrick delivers a standout performance as Karl and Steve. He plays a Karl confident in his beliefs and firm in his decisions, without any of the apologetic self-awareness some might bring to the role, and his Steve is clearly a man confronted by a bewildering level of hypocrisy and passive-aggression. Patrick hits his beats hard, lands his actions, and fills his disagreeable characters with humanity. This is an ensemble production to its core, though, and the credit for its success must reside with the whole team, with the way the actors knit together to form a believable whole out of a chopped up set of realities.
Ray Nedzel’s Russ is a man ripped free from the trappings of giving a damn, and his wry, self-effacing delivery sets up a moving arc as he portrays a basically good person pushed over the line. His Dan is huge, maybe just a hair too much, but forgivable in that he made me belly laugh. Barbara Roberts’ Bev is huggably sweet, and her brittleness and growing desperation contribute to a generous amount of the dramatic tension. Her Kathy is delivered with a well-tempered balance of confidence and righteous indignation. Brandon Lee’s Albert is the kind of person to which you pay immediate attention because you get the feeling he knows more than he’s letting on, and his Kevin was both confrontational and yet grudgingly likeable.
As a final note, I witnessed something on opening night that most likely will not happen on any other night. About 10 minutes into the second act, the lights came up briefly and Executive Director Matt Joslyn announced that one of the actors needed to leave the stage and would be replaced by the assistant stage manager, Jovi Richards, script in hand. Firstly, big kudos to Ms. Richards, who stepped in out of nowhere, and out of costume, and not only held her own but made a solid contribution, even falling neatly into the pace of the show. But more so, I’m reminded of something Julie Hamberg stressed in the season announcement a few months ago: the theater’s commitment to the community.
During the opening night of the opening show of the opening season of a new artistic director, the entire performance was put on hold so that an actor could address a personal emergency. Of course, it’s the decent thing to do, but you might be surprised at how impersonal some professional theaters can be. Live Arts is a community theater, committed to community-based values, and what I took from the vocal outpouring of support from the audience in response, is the authenticity of that value.