THEATER REVIEW | “Clybourne Park” at the Guthrie Theater: A play about “the American dilemma” and other euphemisms


Clybourne Park is the kind of play that’s often referred to as “sociological”: it deals with issues of race, class, and neighborhood change. Really, though, Bruce Norris’s 2010 play—now being presented at the Guthrie Theater—would more accurately be described as psychological. The characters are aware of broad social issues insofar as their own lives are affected, but they don’t spend their time debating policy. Rather, we watch them trying to determine how to navigate those structures as individuals and as families, while trying—hard though it sometimes is—to treat others as they themselves would like to be treated.

It’s a deeply human script, and director Lisa Peterson has crafted a production that’s consistently compelling and surprisingly (for a play about Big Issues) entertaining. Critically, this play about how people talk sounds like people actually talking. A character will start to say something, then another character will interrupt, and you can hear the first character trying to decide whether or not to finish his sentence. That’s the kind of thing that happens constantly in actual conversation, but is rarely allowed to happen on the sanitized world of the stage.

Like the much worse play Appomattox, seen last year on the same stage, Clybourne Park jumps between two time periods to dramatize historical parallels as the tides of American history turn. The first act of Clybourne Park is set in 1959, as a couple (Bill McCallum and Kathryn Meisle) respond to their neighbors’ concerns about the fact that the couple have just sold their home in an all-white neighborhood to a black couple. The second act takes place 50 years later in the same home, as representatives (Ansa Akyea and Shá Cage) of the now predominantly African-American community ask a white couple (Emily Gunyou Halaas and Jim Lichtscheidl) who have just bought the house to preserve the neighborhood’s historic character in the new house they plan to build on the site.

In both cases, race is manifestly a topic of concern; but in both cases, all characters involved try to talk their way around the topic rather than dealing with it head-on. Norris not only has fun with the characters’ clumsy attempts to talk about race without talking about race, he precisely locates the sources of their discomfort. There are many reasons why race can be a very difficult subject to discuss, and Clybourne Park is a guided tour through several of them.

Peterson has assembled an all-star cast—all of whom, except for one supporting actor, play different roles in the two acts—and none of these excellent actors disappoint. Best are Cage, who balances strength and vulnerability; McCallum, whose appearance here is a tonic after his role in the embarrassingly poor God of Carnage, where he played a guy who loses his temper in a living room for much stupider reasons; and Lichtscheidl, whose comic timing is showcased to wonderful effect in the first act and who effectively taps a much different range of emotion in the second. Lichtschedl’s short but hilarious speech requesting a glass of iced tea is a miniature master class in comic characterization.

Worth additional mention is the detailed, ingenious set by Rachel Hauck, whose team of designers and stagehands effect a striking transformation between the two acts. The sense of verisimilitude and illusion of depth are remarkable; watch the scene in the second act where Halaas and Lichtscheidl have a screaming match in the kitchen. It looks and sounds like they’re one room over in an actual house, an impressive feat on the vast McGuire Proscenium Stage.

Clybourne Park is the Guthrie at its best: drafting a team of the finest local actors and setting them loose on a sharp, challenging contemporary script. You’ll leave the theater talking, thinking, and maybe even laughing.

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.