By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; C01
In a twist on the here-today-gone-tomorrow cycle of putting on shows at Washington's subscription theaters, a hit Woolly Mammoth play is going to be here again.
The drama returning this summer is not some revenue-building piece of fluff, but a serious (and seriously funny) work that was a success for Woolly this past spring: "Clybourne Park," a play by Bruce Norris that throws open to discussion such pertinent issues as re-gentrification and whether we can ever truly speak frankly about race.
The show will be remounted on Woolly's stage, just off the corner of Seventh and D streets NW, beginning on July 21 and running through Aug. 14, with the entire original eight-member cast reprising its roles. Bringing the show back will cost about $225,000, Woolly officials say. That's nearly double the amount the company normally dedicates to an add-on summer event, such as the one-man "Lord of the Rings'' parody that played last summer.
"Our tendency is to put on a play and then say, 'Let's move on,' " says Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth's longtime head, who directed "Clybourne." "I think one of the things that put us over the top with 'Clybourne' was the depth of the conversation it created. There was a special fit between the play and the city."
That is why the company has taken an unusual extra step with this play, one that seems to strike a nerve wherever it is staged. The New York production, at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons -- produced concurrently with Woolly's -- received stellar notices, and a London version this fall at the highly regarded Royal Court Theatre proved so successful that plans have been announced to move it for a commercial run in the city's West End.
Few Washington stage productions get anything like a long life because of the time constraints attending the presentation of a full roster of plays. Studio Theatre, with its four smallish performance spaces, has the most flexibility for extending the runs of popular offerings by several weeks. But that's an exception. The downside for serious theater is the limited exposure a play can get: Few works have the opportunity to be seen by enough of the public to take hold of the city's consciousness, to become fodder for widespread dinner table debate, in the way a movie or a YouTube video might.
Woolly is banking on the goodwill generated by the initial run -- which was extended by a week -- to engender another ticket-buying groundswell. Norris's provocative piece should have the dramatic firepower to fill Woolly's 265-seat theater again. The inspiration for "Clybourne" is Lorraine Hansberry's landmark 1959 drama, "A Raisin in the Sun," about a black family moving into a white Chicago enclave. Norris trains his ironic lens on the repercussions of that sale among the family's entrenched white neighbors, and then, 40 years later, looks at what happens when the house is sold again, this time to a professional white couple, in what is now a black neighborhood.
Shalwitz remains struck by how resonantly Norris's thematic blueprint applies to Washington and plans to explore the connection in additional programs of audience talk-backs and panel discussions. "This helps Woolly to continue to be committed to the life of the play," the artistic director says.
It also helps that, contrary to common practice for the company, the set for "Clybourne Park" was preserved. "We either had to get a dumpster, or a canister," says Jeffrey Herrmann, Woolly's managing director. Choosing the bin ultimately made the decision to restage the show that much easier. All Herrmann's staff has to do is fetch it from a storage yard in Maryland.