The Neapolitan ice cream that Russ (David Manis) eats in the opening scene: It’s almost too metaphorically obvious, the multiple colors sharing one box, in a play inspired in part by Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark work A Raisin in the Sun. Bruce Norris’ Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about race in America. It must be about race in America.
That’s perhaps the most limited way of considering this remarkable work, which is receiving its local premiere at Pioneer Theatre Company. Understandably, the setup seems to suggest that race will be the center of everything, as Russ and his wife, Bev (Celeste Ciulla), prepare to move out of their Chicago neighborhood for the suburbs circa 1959. However, one of their neighbors, Karl (Brian Normoyle), arrives in an extremely agitated state, informing Russ that the family that has purchased their home is … well, there’s no tap-dancing around it, they’re Negro. Colored. Different.
Flash forward after the intermission to 2009, when a different sort of transition is taking place in the same Clybourne Park neighborhood. Now predominantly African-American, it has become attractive to young white couple Steve (also played by Brian Normoyle) and Lindsey (Tarah Flanagan). Their plans to demolish and rebuild their new home—the same one sold by Russ and Bev 50 years earlier—runs up against the concerns of local residents, including Lena (Erika Rose) and Kevin (Howard W. Overshown), over preserving the area’s historical character.
Superficially, the characters in both halves are talking—and often, very carefully not talking—about race as they argue over the changes portended by the arrival of new residents. But what they’re really talking about is change, period—and, more specifically, Clybourne Park deals with how we deal with “the other,” because race is only one of the questions of other-ness addressed in the text. Karl’s pregnant wife, Betsy (Tarah Flanagan), is deaf, and treated by other characters as infantile at best, nonexistent at worst; Karl refers on more than one occasion to leaving her in the car, more like a pet than a spouse. There are awkward references to the neighborhood’s Jewish grocer, and the boy with Down syndrome who bags groceries there. And one of the most crucial characters is one who has already died when the events of the play begin: Russ and Bev’s son, Kenneth, a Korean War veteran who returned home under a cloud of suspicion for war crimes.
What Norris’ play explores, then, is the notion of “community” as comfortable, nonthreatening sameness, built on the reality that the things we don’t understand become the things we don’t want to talk about. There’s an explosively funny sequence in the second act where the superficial niceties of the interactions between the gentrifying white couple and their black soon-to-be neighbors disintegrate, and they begin exchanging stereotype-driven jokes—at times not even realizing the layers of potential offensiveness in them.
Pioneer Theatre Company delivers a production worthy of this terrific play, built on Timothy Douglas’ strong direction of a cast all playing multiple roles. Every one of the actors gets standout moments, but the most valuable player may be Erika Rose, playing Russ and Bev’s longtime housekeeper, Francine (as well as Lena in 2009), with a frustration hidden beneath forced politeness. George Maxwell’s set has to make an intermission transition from middle-class 1950s tidiness to graffiti- covered reclamation project, and does so with impressive ease.
While the box of Neapolitan ice cream of Clybourne Park’s opening moments may not be the key to everything that follows in terms of its contents, it may be more likely that its very name becomes such a key. Russ and Bev start an odd conversation beginning with curiosity about the etymology of the word “Neapolitan,” leading to an exchange about the proper word for residents of a variety of different cities and countries. Giving a name to “them”—all those people who live in all those faraway places—can be just a game. It always becomes a very different game when “them” begin to live their lives much closer to us.
Pioneer Memorial Theatre
300 S. 1400 East
Through March 2
See website for times