'Clybourne Park' is Ensemble Master Class at Ensemble Theatre

2010 play about racial integration and property values in Chicago burbs comes to life in South Euclid

click to enlarge The cast of Clybourne Park at Ensemble Theatre - Aimee Lambes Photography
Aimee Lambes Photography
The cast of Clybourne Park at Ensemble Theatre

There is an ineffable pleasure in seeing actors come together and perform in a tight, glistening ensemble production. So, it is fully appropriate that such an experience should now await at a theater named Ensemble. In "Clybourne Park" at Ensemble Theatre, which has recently relocated from Peace Park in Cleveland Heights to South Euclid, seven actors merge their talents in spectacular fashion. They weave their lines into a comical and startling presentation of a play that, frankly, has lost some its controversial snap due to events in the world since it premiered in New York in 2010.

This 2010 play by Bruce Norris was created as a companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 classic "A Raisin in the Sun." In '59, affluent white residents Russ (Brian Pedaci) and Bev (Mary Werntz), are moving from the titular town outside Chicago, and batting around small talk until a neighbor Karl (Dan Zalevsky) arrives and asks if it's true that they are selling their home to a Black family (Bev's response: "Isn't it possible that they're Mediterranean?"). Karl is in full snit, predicting that all their property values will plunge if their neighborhood is integrated—a very real belief back then and no doubt even now in some places.

During this edgy discussion, Russ and Bev's Black maid Francine (Jailyn Sherell Harris) remains mum, until her husband Albert arrives to pick her up and things get complicated. The tension quickly ratchets up from mellow to monstrous as clueless local minister Jim (Christian Achkar) and Dan's deaf wife Betsy (Hannah Storch) arrive. Soon, it becomes clear that the home has a fraught history of its own involving Russ and Bev's son, who committed suicide on the premises.

Then Act Two takes place 50 years hence when the Clybourne Park has become an all-Black neighborhood. This is when the play sends our tendrils to connect with the Hansberry classic. A Black couple, Lena and Kevin, are meeting with Steve and Lindsey, played by the actors who were Karl and Betsy before. Lena is related to the Younger family from "Raisin" and is now the rep for the housing board, which Steve is negotiating with so he can build a McMansion on the Clybourne Park property he has purchased. Their respective lawyers are in attendance and the discussion gets heated since the current residents think Steve's monstrous house would, you guessed it, destroy property values.

The tense discussion soon turns ugly as Steve is coaxed into telling a racist and homophobic joke, leading to more sturm und drang. This device of conjuring shock through a sharing of nasty jokes seems far too little and way too late to generate anything more than a shrug, let alone shock. Such are the wages of time when it comes to reviving plays with "contemporary" themes.

While the second act script is not nearly as successful as Act One, it leads to a coda where we see Russ and Bev's son back in the fifties, alone in his room dressed in his military uniform, with everyone unaware of what is to come on both a personal and community level.

Norris's play was quite controversial 12 years ago when it opened, but since then events have spun out of control so outrageously that racial issues revolving around property values seem almost quaint. Racial hot topics that dominate the news now involve fatal shootings of Black people by police and surging Black incarceration rates—all while one political party actively promotes the destruction of voting rights (and our democracy) as a way to preserve their power indefinitely.

But that lack of timeliness doesn't take any of the glow off this production, so skillfully directed by Celeste Cosentino, which is gripping and entertaining throughout. It would be rude to call out each actor individually for their performances since they all blend with such brilliant timing and nuance as they craft indelible individual characters. This is an Ensemble that is a joy to behold.

Clybourne Park, through Oct. 9 at Ensemble Theatre, Performing Arts Center—Notre Dame College, 4545 College Rd., South Euclid, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org.

***
Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.