Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Deserves the Regional Tony for Triumphs like “Clybourne Park”

      Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park” has been produced in New York and London, winning the Olivier award and this year’s Pulitzer, but I cannot imagine a better production than the current re-staging at Woolly Mammoth in Washington.  The same one ran last season to great acclaim so the company found a slot to repeat it and it’s resulted in a sellout.  We were able to snag two of the very last tickets by dropping in the theatre the night before the performance we hoped to see.   Only the Arena Stage has been recognized with the regional Tony award – the first one – in 1976.  Chicago is a great theatre town (five companies have won the regional Tony), but Washington presents extraordinary productions at a half dozen gems.  Woolly Mammoth has always emphasized new work and those plays have been produced nationally and internationally.  This is a great company working with supreme power in this show and it deserves national attention.

Entrance to Woolly Mammoth Theatre
      The company moved into the $9 million space in 2005 and I mention the price because they got a lot of bang for the buck.  A large corner Victorian brownstone on the outside turns into
a multi-level industrial type loft space for the lobby and the main stage (there is also a smaller cabaret space), a corner thrust with the 265 seats set at various levels and groupings of boxes surrounding the tight orchestra level.  The audience is placed on top of the action and almost within it.  The set for “Clybourne Park” incorporates a large picture window and a group of audience members sit behind it looking directly at the audience members in the orchestra.  This reflects a play that is about characters differentiated by ethnicity, gender, and class that communicate with each other, but are unable to connect on any deep level because of deeply held cultural beliefs (prejudices) in the first act and fear of socially embarrassing themselves or others (patronization) in the second act.

      “Clybourne Park” is the Chicago neighborhood the Younger family plan to move to in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”  The house for which Lena Younger is able to make a down payment is the setting for this play.  The first act examines the family selling the house to the Youngers through a real estate agent; the neighbors that are privately horrified by the sale yet have also treated the main family hypocritically in the past couple of years; and the family’s housekeeper and her husband, who look on the white characters with wary bemusement.  The end of the first act hits a note of real tragedy when the white patriarch has to spell out for the other characters just how the neighborhood failed his family.  The second act is set in 2009 and a supposedly hip, white couple have bought the house from Lena Younger’s descendants and plan to renovate it.  Although it is never directly stated, there is the feeling at first that Clybourne Park has turned from a middle-class white neighborhood to a black one that has fallen on hard times and is in need of gentrification.  However, that is the white view; the black residents’ view is that it is a historic and diverse middle-class neighborhood that needs to have its roots respected (literally and figuratively since there is a symbolic tree in the back yard that is referred to a number of times and which is being uprooted).  The play ends on a note that is both profound and oblique, recalling the event that drove the white family from their home in the 1950s.  

      This is an extremely funny script and it has the guts to display the intelligence, stupidity, grace, and awkwardness of two groups of characters played by the same cast of actors.  Jennifer Mendenhall and Cody Nickell display extraordinary range in playing sets of characters that are emotionally diametrically opposed whereas Mitchell Hébert and Jefferson Russell have to employ the twin forces of personality and charisma (almost screen acting) to embody characters that might seem similar from one act to the other, but who are dealing with very different social and cultural contexts.  Both possess a physical power that is palpable.  The rest of the cast – Kimberly Gilbert, Michael Glenn, Dawn Ursula, and Chris Dinolfo in the small, heart-breaking coda – is perfect.  None of the actors or the designers, for that matter, puts a foot wrong in the production, even though the characters metaphorically glide, side step, trip, and stomp during the course of the play.  There are only two quibbles that we had and they were with the writing:  middle-class people just didn’t use the F word in a semi-public situation in the 1950s and crêpe myrtle trees don’t grow in Chicago (it’s the wrong climate zone) and they never grow very tall or with deep roots.  A crab apple or oak would make more sense symbolically and in terms of shrubbery.
"Clybourne Park" runs through August 14.

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