Theater review: Prejudices targeted in beautiful 'Clybourne Park'

Published: Monday, Feb. 18 2013 9:50 p.m. MST

Celeste Ciulla (Bev), from left, Erika Rose (Francine) and David Manis (Russ) in Pioneer Theatre Company's "Clybourne Park."

Alex Weisman, icewolfphotography.com

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“CLYBOURNE PARK,” Pioneer Theatre Company, through March 2, $25-$49, 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org

“Clybourne Park” won the Pulitzer Prize during its limited Off-Broadway run. The honorning committee said it was a “powerful work whose memorable characters speak in witty and perceptive ways.”

During its production in London, where it earned the Olivier Award, critics called it an “often laugh-out-loud funny, bitingly witty, skillfully written play.”

When it opened on Broadway in April of last year, “Clybourne Park” was the lead runner in the Tony race, which it received. The play is “vital and relevant,” according to the New York Times. As well as “funny and stimulating.”

Before the regional premiere in Salt Lake City, the hilarious drama enjoyed long, successful runs in cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The Pioneer Theatre production boasts a universally superb ensemble of actors and is beautifully directed by Timothy Douglas. It’s challenging to imagine a more enjoyable staging.

And it’s really best if details of the play can be slowly revealed while you’re sitting in the theater. So my recommendation is to stop reading this review when there’s an urgency to indulge in Pioneer Theatre tickets.

While in the audience, it’s a joy to recognize that, through the clever writing of playwright Bruce Norris, each act begins with suppressed tension then humor slowly simmers, percolates and then boils over. And with each chuckle comes a creeping, painful recognition of seeing bits of ourselves onstage.

The primary topic is racism, but each feeling of intolerance, animosity or indifference that may divide us — from culture to churches, from gender to sexual preference, from disabilities to affluence — is also targeted. At one point a character would be comfortable being called narrow-minded, but don’t question her aesthetics.

The evening turns poignant as the point is powerfully made that the best way to judge ourselves is through selfless service.

The play is set inside the house at 406 Clybourne St. in the north Chicago suburb of Clybourne Park, but 50 years separate the two acts. In the first act, we meet a white couple vacating the house that has been sold to a black family in 1959. In the second act, a white family is planning to level the home in what is in 2009 a predominately black but geographically desirable neighborhood.

With the twin time periods, the seven actors play different characters in the two acts that both reinforce and contradict one another.

At the Pioneer, it’s truly impossible to single out a performer who outshines another. It’s a true ensemble production, with actors performing and relating to one another as if the play had been running for years.

Only Erika Rose, in the dual roles of Francine and Lena, has played her parts previously, at the production last January in Philadelphia. Celeste Ciulla (Bev/Kathy), Tarah Flanagan (Betsy/Lindsay) and Kasey Mahaffy (Jim/Tom/Kenneth), listed alphabetically, have performed previously at the Pioneer. David Manis (Russ/Dan), Brian Normoyle (Karl/Steve) and Howard W. Overshown (Albert/Kevin) make their area debuts, but each of the seven will surely be welcomed at future Pioneer castings.

As a final endorsement, never have so many howls of laughter resulted from the capital of Morocco.

Content advisory: profanities and vulgarities, including deliberately offensive racist and sexist jokes

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