It should be a matter of civic pride that Woolly was there at the birth of this ingenious comedy of racial anxiety, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s tide-turning 1959 drama, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Set in two eras in the same house in a fading and then, half a century later, gentrifying Chicago neighborhood, the play rummages, if you will, in the eternally unfinished basement of American race relations. It is a play about people thinking they don’t sound exactly the way they do.
“Clybourne” immerses itself in a lot of other intriguing notions, many revolving around that class-and-culture-uniting American obsession: property values. Under Shalwitz’s inspired guidance, the actors stake out memorable identities in each of the two divergent acts, as allies and adversaries in a struggle over claims to turf, to security, to history, as well as the future of the country. You’ll intuit, in the unease and tension stirred in an enclave where the sense of who belongs keeps changing, that “Clybourne Park” might just as well have been titled “H Street Corridor” or “U Street NW.”
The conceit is that the house — in scale and detail, an achievement in theatrical delight by set designer James Kronzer — is the one that has been sold to the Youngers, the fictional black family of “Raisin” that, in Hansberry’s telling, encounters a wall of hostility as it tries to move into a white neighborhood. Norris’s Act 1 takes place in 1959, as sellers Russ (Mitchell Hebert) and Bev (Jennifer Mendenhall), amid packing boxes, are confronted by their white neighbors — most aggressively by Cody Nickells’s starchy local Rotarian, Karl — to pressure them to stop the sale. It’s a case of, according to the offensive Karl, letting one ethnically different family in and the whole neighborhood going to seed.
The second act propels us to 2009 in the same house and an entirely new set of demographic parameters. Now, a white yuppie couple from the suburbs, pregnant Lindsey (Kimberly Gilbert) and outwardly enlightened Steve (Nickell, again) have bought and are seeking to demolish the house, a property that has historical and emotional value to an enclave in the city that is now predominantly black.
What unfolds across time are two discussions, each reflecting on elements of the other, and which taken as a whole demonstrate how feebly have developed our skills at talking to one another across racial lines. In each act, a black couple — played superbly both times by Dawn Ursula and Jefferson A. Russell — is drawn into the argument, and it is the alternately delicate and blunt-force nature of how the white characters treat them that provokes some of the evening’s biggest — and bitterest — laughs.
In Act 1, for instance, it never occurs to well-meaning Bev that her housekeeper, Ursula’s Francine, would have no use for the ornate chafing dish she’s trying to get rid of. (Or is it that a mostly white audience laughs, merely because it assumes the maid can’t make use of it?) Watching Ursula’s face, as Francine resists Bev’s patronizing entreaties — or trades meaningful looks with her husband, Russell’s Albert — is a play all unto itself. The couple is just as effective in Act 2, when Ursula is Lena and Russell is Kevin, well-to-do neighbors of the incoming yuppie couple, and who oppose the blueprints for the gut-renovation.
One of the pure joys of this “Clybourne” is that you could diagram every one of the performances this way. Since my first seating more than a year ago, the eight original actors — all of whom return — have further polished their portrayals and find with even more precision their laugh lines’ strike zones.
Nickell, poignantly trailed by Gilbert’s sheepish Betsy in Act 1 and goaded by her antagonistic Lindsey in Act 2, is the evening’s heavy. He appealingly sidesteps the buffoonish caricature that a man of varying degrees of racial insensitivity or ignorance might easily become.
Mendenhall and Hebert, in the play’s opening scene, create a breathtaking synergy, as homeowners with far more on their minds than financial gain or convenience as a rationale for selling. And when Hebert’s broken and heartbroken Russ finally erupts, an audience does not care whether his fury is aimed at his neighbors’ pressure tactics or the unfairness of the universe. It’s all one. Letting go of the place, for him and for Bev, is a sort of downsizing of the heart.
The assignments of Michael Glenn and Chris Dinolfo are not as showy, but they each contribute to the optimal emotional resonance of this venture. Helen Huang’s apt workaday costumes seem intended to evoke time rather than personality: “Clybourne” is absorbed more in the sociological fashion of the day. And the lighting by Colin K. Bills brings into finer focus the house’s design and transformation.
If you didn’t get to see “Clybourne” in its first sold-out run, you’ve been given a terrific second chance. And if you did go before, you’ll be surprised at how many moments will newly provoke and tickle you. In fact, you might even emerge from the experience thinking more of the play than you had before.
by Bruce Norris. Directed by Howard Shalwitz. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Helen Huang; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Matt Otto.
About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Aug. 14 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.