This play is one for a time capsule. A comedy-drama of extraordinary power and depth, "Clybourne Park" confronts indelicate issues of race and real estate in two time periods 50 years apart.
In the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Studio Theatre production, which has been extended to Nov. 18, a razor-sharp ensemble delivers expertly calibrated performances that start out in muted shades then erupt into blistering bursts of raw emotion.
Act I is set in a middle-class Chicago neighborhood in 1959. Bev and Russ are moving elsewhere -- in this well-constructed piece, you will eventually learn why -- and a neighbor, Karl, asks them not to sell their home to the black family that has bought it. Karl suggests a way to get out of the deal, while the couple, who didn't know about the Youngers, remain adamant about sellling. Karl pleads, saying their property values will decline.
The buyers are actually characters in Lorraine Hansberry's watershed "A Raisin in the Sun," escaping their Chicago slum for a shot at a new life.
Act II takes place in 2009, when the primarily black neighborhood is being "gentrified" by upper-income whites (are they still called 'yuppies'?). The professional couple buying the run-down property plan to tear down the eyesore, and then build a larger home, which has raised the ire of adjacent homeowners. They meet with two members of the neighborhood association, the architect and their lawyer, to finalize a satisfactory agreement.
The charming bungalow set, designed by the peerless Scott Neale, undergoes a remarkable transformation during intermission. Once a home, then a symbol of white flight and inner city woes, its transition mirrors the characters.
The seven performers deftly play dual roles, convincing as both Eisenhower-era Americans and their 21st century counterparts. With her Donna Reed smile, Nancy Bell strikes the right tone as both typical housewife Bev, and then privileged attorney Kathy. Mark Anderson Phillips makes a strong Rep debut as Russ, a '50s breadwinner who struggles to go on after a tragedy, and then quickly flips a switch to play Dan, a jovial construction worker in the modern part.
Shanara Gabrielle, as the deaf Betsy and the expectant home buyer Lindsey, effectively differentiates the women with physicality. But it is fearless Michael James Reed, whose stunning bluster as unapologetic jerks Karl and Steve, grabs us by the throat.
Chauncy Thomas superbly portrays Alvin, whose wife is a maid, with a quiet dignity, and then confidently tackles Kevin, a smart guy irritated by cloying white liberal attitudes. Tanesha Gary distinctly conveys pre-Civil Rights domestic Francine and later Lena, a well-educated woman trying to honor her relative's legacy.
Eric Gilde portrays three roles Jim/Tom/Kenneth -- a hapless minister, diplomatic architect and tormented Korean War veteran, and he makes it look effortless. His final scene is shattering in its emotional heft.
In both acts, a clash of classes and cultures develops as each group -- trying desperately to be polite and inoffensive -- can no longer avoid conflict. What begins as awkward moves on to unsettling and then explosive. It's reminiscent of "God of Carnage" civility gone haywire, but the social commentary is thornier. It's like relentlessly picking at a scab and then finally ripping it off to start over with a fresh wound.
The purpose for the characters' initial uneasy tap dance around each other becomes clear as the pleasant small talk turns into simmering resentments and hostile feelings. Family dynamics also come into play, adding another layer to the complexities -- brittle, intense drama punctuated by audacity.
Playwright Bruce Norris, who won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama and 2010 Tony Award for Best Play with this provocative work, uses blunt humor and masterfully builds tension to fan the flames while exposing ugly truths. Norris' dialogue is both witty and ascerbic, intended to shock and make people think. Hurtful, shameful things are said that will make you squirm and keep you glued to the action.
Under Timothy Near's brilliant chess-like direction, the characters' beliefs come across honestly, whether they are well-intentioned or misguided.
The moving finale left me speechless, a rare occurrence. It took a while to exhale.
What: "Clybourne Park"
When: through Nov. 18
Where: Studio Theatre, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves, Mo.
Information: For times and tickets, go to reostl.org or call 314-968-4925.