Tyler Madden, David Galloway, Michala Smith, Heather Green, Katherine Martin, & Ryan Lash in Clybourne Park. Photo by Richard McGrew.

Clybourne Park

By Bruce Norris
Directed by Tony Prince

Reviewed by Keith Waits

Entire contents copyright © 2017 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

I have watched some plays that were awarded the Pulitzer Prize and wondered, “was this REALLY the best American play of the year?” Watching this production of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park that thought never entered my mind. This is a play for which the word ‘great’ is fully justified, a reading of the American character in the last two generations destined to stand as a landmark for theatre in this country.

It is something of a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, the first act a peek into the world of the white family who, in September 1959, have just sold their home to the Youngers, the black family at the center of Hansberry’s story. Bev (Heather Green), and husband Russ (Tony Prince), have endured terrible loss, and seek to escape the neighborhood and its restrictive, prohibitive character. Karl (Ryan Lash), and his wife, Betsy (Katherine Martin) represents the neighborhood association and its veiled racism, while Francine (Michala Smith), who works for them, tolerates their patronizing attitude better than her husband Albert (Tyler Madden). Jim (Bart Galloway) is their minister and a fairly benevolent, moderating presence.

Act two is set exactly fifty years later, September 2009, as the sale of the home from the next generation of Youngers to a young white married couple expecting their first child (Lash and Martin again) is debated with neighborhood association representatives (Smith and Madden) while the presence of two lawyers Galloway and Green) help reveal the labyrinthine legalities of real estate in the 21st century, and playwright Norris explores the complex social implications of the new gentrification.

Clybourne Park is a model of efficiency and purpose, tidily packing multiple layers of social commentary and meaning into its story; each line placed with great intention. The characters are succinct mid-twentieth century archetypes that are allowed to be so much more. Ms. Green and Mr. Lash both enter a bit chirpily with their characterizations, establishing the vital grounding in the Father Knows Best cultural ideal long associated with the period, but both actors skillfully work their way below the unctuous surface texture of the characters to reveal conflicting examples of humanity. Mr. Prince paints a provocative portrait of a post-Willie Loman American male who has felt the ground pulled out from under him. As Lash’s Karl pleads with him to reverse the deal and preserve the racial purity of the neighborhood, Prince exposes the lie at the heart of that illusion and shows that feeling like the ‘Other’ need not be about race.

The pace is perfectly set to follow the careful build of the text. The upbeat normalcy is stripped away like an onion peeled in the first act, and then the 2009 setting uses the openness and narcissism of modern-day self-awareness to dig deeply into the American character. The play does everything that great drama must do, excavate our innermost selves to reveal truths that we find difficult to face.

Is Ryan Lash this good, or is he exercising a strategy in which doing only one play every 12 or 18 months makes him seem this good? And Katherine Martin caps off a year of exceeding daring and excellence playing his wife, Lindsey, in Act Two. Her dynamic performance is fluid and captivating, a quicksilver energy that leads the audience’s sympathies up and down. Heather Green is so perfect as Bev in act one, dependent on superficial social intercourse to cope with tragedy, and equally adept as a tough-as-nails lawyer in act two. Tyler Madden and Michala Smith both walk a fine line, capturing the curious veneer of servility required of black Americans on the eve of tremendous social change in 1959, and then a canny observation of how much of that quality is still a part of the equation fifty years later.

The play is also very funny, and some of the bigger laughs come from unspoken reactions from the cast, such as Ms. Smith’s expression after Ms. Martin’s Lindsey proclaims, “At least HALF of my friends are black!” The humor is easily relatable because Norris’ text, on the mark at the time of its premiere in 2010, has only grown more relevant in the years since. American communities have been caught in this struggle for years and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

The design work, from Eric Allgeier’s set and Lindsey Chamberlin’s costumes, which both have an impact, to Keith Kimmel’s lighting and Richard McGrew’s sound, which are understated enough to not call attention to themselves, is spot on. Capturing the period without quotation marks.

If you hesitate to go see Clybourne Park because it is not familiar to you, rest assured that this is one of the most important plays of this Louisville theatre season. I’m not sure why it has taken seven years to be produced here, but we can be grateful to The Liminal Playhouse for finally bringing it to us with such quality and intelligence.

Clybourne Park

October 26, 27, 28, November 2, 3, 4 at 7:30 p.m
October 29 and November 5 at 2:00 p.m.Tickets: $20 in advance, $22 at door

The Liminal Playhouse
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40203


Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.