Clybourne Park, Then and Now

So my 2015 is off to a decently creative start. Hit up the Company of Fools fundraiser a few weeks back, HAIRY APE rehearsals have started up again with Chamber Theatre Hintonburg, and I’ve finally restarted my long-lapsed practice of reading on the bus (I’ve been woefully off my reading these past couple of years, something I’m trying hard to correct these days).

But more importantly, I’ve finally gotten out to see some full-on theatre. After inexcusably missing the previous shows in their 102nd season, I at long last returned to the Ottawa Little Theatre last night for look at the their latest bit, an Ottawa premiere of a play so laden down with impressive awards it’s amazing they can actually get it on its feet. But manage they did, and with director Chantal Plante at the helm, Bruce Norris’ CLYBOURNE PARK has been brought to life, a little slice of Chicago right here in Canada’s capitol. Or rather, two slices (one slice of Chicago-style is NEVER enough), as Norris script splits into two neatly divided acts, each taking place in the same suburban Chi-town home, taking a scrutinizing glare at race relations then (1959) and now (2009). The ensemble cast each play a different character in either era, giving the play a wonderful freshness as well as a delightfully curious ‘cracked mirror’ effect on the whole.


Act I finds Bev and Russ (Laura Webster and Lawrence Evenchick) selling their family home after a tragedy they can’t seem to put past them. But a local busybody (David Holton) finds out that the home has been purchased by a – gasp – coloured family (‘don’t we say ‘negro’ now?’ asks well-meaning minister Jim, played by JT Morris), and arrives to try and talk some sense into the vacating Russ. That he spews his thinly disguised racism right in front of Bev and Russ’ housekeeper Francine and her husband Albert (Cherie Hoyte and Eze Leno) makes it all the more surreally real, grasping at thin straws like Francine not liking to ski as evidence that the races cannot possibly coexist. Only Karl’s blissfully deaf wife Betsy (Kirby Naftel) escapes the ensuing melee relatively unscathed.

JT Morris, Laura Webster and Lawrence Evenchick, 1959.
JT Morris, Laura Webster and Lawrence Evenchick, 1959.

Flash forward to 50 years later…a young white couple (Holton and Naftel) are readying major renovations on the very same house, prompting a neighbourhood meeting about zoning laws and height restrictions and what-not, with some ages old resentment bubbling beneath the surface. Lawyers (Webster and Morris) glare at one another, and a clash with another local couple (Hoyte and Leno) simmers for a spell until inevitably boiling over. All the while the ghost of 1959 looms over thee proceedings…

Kirby Naftel, Cherie Hoyte, Eze Leno and David Holton, 2009.
Kirby Naftel, Cherie Hoyte, Eze Leno and David Holton, 2009.

PARK is a pretty sweet time, with some brutally frank exchanges and lines that you have to laugh at, because they make you too uncomfortable to do anything else. I found the first act more compelling than the second, but that’s me..see it yourself and tell me which part worked best for you. Evenchick’s rigid, broken Russ makes the first act riveting, especially when clashing with the insufferable Karl (a wonderful shithead courtesy of David Holton), and Cherie Hoyte’s proud Francine has incredible bursts of power throughout. Webster, too, is great as the stoic and suffering Bev, and I particularly loved a late-act exchange between her and Eze Leno. Act II gets stolen a bit by Naftel as outspoken Lindsey, but it’s a terrifically entertaining theft to witness. Morris has great moments as grumpy lawyer Tom, too. Props as well to OLT set dude extraordinaire Robin Riddihough, for a brilliant job of transforming the 50’s dream home into a modern fixer-upper between acts, plus some nice soundscaping from Bob Krukowski. The play gives us no easy answers for a problem that has no such quick fixes, but a solid ensemble gives us an exciting look at the shifting sands of time and race, via the microcosm of one neighbourhood. And the question over whether things have actually gotten better, or if we just try really hard to make it LOOK like they have, may linger with you. They certainly should, at any rate. Peace, love and soul,

Kevin Reid (and Winston)

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