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Article updated: 10/10/2013 10:22 AM

Intimate staging key to redtwist's 'Clybourne Park'

By Barbara Vitello

Everybody wants a piece of "Clybourne Park."

No surprise there, considering its pedigree. Written as a companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry's seminal 1959 drama "A Raisin in the Sun," Bruce Norris' Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play is an unflinching, incisive examination of ethnicity and integration; our persistent, not-so-carefully masked bigotry; and the inelegant way we talk about -- or rather around -- race.

The popularity of Norris' cleverly crafted, ever-resonant play -- which also touches on gender, class, homophobia and war -- is evidenced by how frequently it's been staged since it premiered off-Broadway in 2010. Steppenwolf Theatre revived it in 2011. Last spring Baltimore's Center Stage produced it in repertory alongside artistic director Kwame Kwei Armah's "Raisin" response, "Beneatha's Place." (A documentary chronicling the Center Stage project airs Oct. 25 on PBS). Minneapolis Guthrie Theater staged "Clybourne Park" last summer and the Dallas Theater Center runs it and "A Raisin in the Sun" in repertory beginning later this month.

Add to that list redtwist theatre, whose well-acted, nicely agitated production is directed by Goodman Theatre's Steve Scott. Scott sets the temperature at simmer, then gradually turns up the heat in this up-close-and-personal revival that unfolds in-the-round, in a tiny, North Side storefront that seats 38 people, most of whom sit within an arm's length of the actors.

Redtwist's production benefits from the intimate staging, which compels audience members to examine their own attitudes, particularly in the second act when Norris exposes the insidious prejudice that lingers in a generation of Americans who ought to know better.

To that end, none of Norris' characters get a pass. Certainly not in the first act, when the playwright reveals a kind of sugarcoated racism, emblematic of an insulated community.

The action begins in 1959, in a tidy home in the fictional Clybourne Park, an all-white, middle-class Chicago neighborhood that the Youngers -- the African-American family from Hansberry's play -- will soon call home.

The action begins a couple of days before the Youngers arrive, as homeowners Russ (a quietly seething Brian Parry, who is all hard lines and sharp edges) and his wife, Bev (the comically oblivious Jan Ellen Graves), prepare to leave their longtime Chicago home for suburban digs.

While Russ eats ice cream and thumbs through National Geographic, Bev supervises the last of the packing, which falls to Francine (Kelly Owens, whose subtle expressions speak volumes), the couple's maid who is highly attuned to the subtle bigotry practiced by her employers. Over the course of the afternoon, several visitors drop by, including their pastor, played by Michael Sherwin, Francine's husband, Albert (Frank Pete), and homeowner's association representative Karl Lindner -- a fussy, well-mannered racist superbly played by Pat Whalen -- and his deaf wife, Betsy (Carley Moseley), who is pregnant with the couple's first child.

Karl, who appears briefly near the end of Hansberry's play, offers the Younger family a bribe to keep them from moving to Clybourne Park. After they reject his offer, he high-tails it to Russ and Bev's place in a last-ditch effort to convince them to revoke the sale, insisting that selling to a black family will push the neighborhood into a downward spiral. What ensues is uncomfortable: an increasingly heated debate that reveals the barely concealed bigotry that animates these characters.

The second act unfolds 50 years later in the same house, which is now located in an all-black neighborhood, once plagued by drugs and violence, that is becoming gentrified. Rundown, vacant and ripe for renovation, the house has been bought by upper middle class, expectant parents Steve and Lindsay (played by Whalen and Moseley) whose renovations will turn the modest house into a McMansion. This alarms longtime residents Lena and Kevin (played by Owens and Pete) who fear destruction of their community and of the neighborhood's character. On hand to mediate are real estate attorney Kathy (Graves), realtor Tom (Sherwin) and handyman Dan (Parry), whose discovery of an item buried in the backyard brings the play full circle.

One thing more, TimeLine Theatre's fine revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" runs through Nov. 17. If you want the complete Hansberry-Norris experience, see both shows. You'll be glad you did.

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