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Going Deep on Tough Issues

Clybourne Park unsettles at Redwood Curtain Theatre



Theater can be a fantastic escape. Stage magic can entrance and transport us to intriguing realms. Comedic dialogue can beguile us. A trip to see a show can be a relaxing break from the challenges and frustrations of the "real" world — wayward lovers find each other in the end, heroes are rewarded, villains get what they deserve. It is satisfying to sit in the audience and experience the clarity and closure of a scripted life. Yet, perhaps theatre's greater purpose is its ability to hold up an exacting and unforgiving mirror and reflect the authentic, painful and beautifully messy moments in others' lives. Rather than offer escape, some plays ask instead that the audience show up and stay immersed in discomfort and wretched realism. In return, we are gifted with the opportunity to think deeply and critically about ourselves and our communities.

Clybourne Park, written by Bruce Norris, is one such show. It takes on the most sensitive issues of our lives — the big "isms" we generally try to avoid in polite company — and engages with them in ways that are honest, if not particularly redemptive. The Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning script uses the events of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun as its inspiration, taking the story of the first African-American family to purchase a home in a white neighborhood and presenting the action from the perspective of the couple selling that family their home. The first act opens in 1959 as Russ and Bev pack to move, a decision precipitated by a family tragedy. As they poke at each other's sensitivities, an increasingly awkward list of unexpected visitors arrives and they find themselves in direct and complicated conversation with their neighbors about the family who has purchased the house and the resulting change to the demographic of the community. The second act takes the action forward in time 50 years to 2009 as the same cast portrays new characters with their own connections to the prior action. The neighborhood is now mostly African-American families that have strong emotional connections to the history of the place and are struggling against impending gentrification. As two couples and their attorneys sit down to spar over the future of the home, deep pains and prejudices are exposed and examined, revealing the nuanced realities of the characters' lives.

In Redwood Curtain's production, director James Floss leads a strong ensemble cast through what is undoubtedly an emotionally challenging performance. The nature of the show means that lines do not land lightly. It is rife with uncomfortable dialogue and cringe-inducing moments, and the actors do an impressive job of navigating the ugliness with honesty and grace. This is particularly notable as the production marks the first time on the Redwood Curtain stage for most of the cast. The shift in time and switch of characters challenges each performer with diverse portrayals and it is clear that some roles were easier to embrace than others. Actors James Read and Pamela Long have some less-invested moments as the couple selling their home in the first act, but each manages to shine in their second-act roles. Michelle Purnell and Thsnat Berhe are notably strong, engaging performers throughout. The lovely set, designed by Liz Uhazy, undergoes a surprising and effective transformation during intermission to convey the passage of time. The sound design, by Maxwell Schnurer, also assists in this effect, as the music provided between acts takes the audience on a funky journey through the musical stylings of the passing decades. Overall, it is not an easy show to sit through, but it is without question worth taking in. There is no avoiding that our world and our communities are currently struggling with these issues in significant ways. This show provides an opportunity to engage with those challenges in a safe space, hopefully helping to open dialogues and build connections.

Clybourne Park continues its run through May 23 with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and an additional matinee Sunday May 17 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 with special Thursday $10 pricing. For more information call 443-7688.


Ferndale Repertory Theatre hosts a Season Announcement Party, Saturday May 9 at 6 p.m. at the D Street Community Center in Arcata. Learn about the upcoming FRT season of shows and how you can get involved. Discounts will be available on memberships and season tickets. For more information call 786-5483.

Spring Awakening opens at North Coast Repertory on May 21. A winner of eight Tony Awards, this powerful rock musical explores the confusion and chaos of the teen years as the characters face the challenge of growing up and figuring it all out. The production will run through June 20. For more information call 442-6278.


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