Good Theater is packing quite an emotional and mental punch with its 12th season opener, “Clybourne Park.” The heavy-hitting drama by Bruce Norris challenges our perception of the world by drawing parallels between two seemingly different eras. The result is riveting and thought-provoking.

The inspiration for “Clybourne Park” comes from Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Norris cleverly responds to the play, imaging a storyline based on Hansberry’s play, but occurring before and after.

The first act is set in 1959, in the middle-class, white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. The country is still reeling from the aftermath of the Korean War, and our military involvement in the Vietnam War looms on the horizon. Segregation is still rampant in parts of the United States.

When Russ (Stephen Underwood) and Bev (Amy Roche), grieving the loss of their son two years prior, sell their house to a black couple, tempers in the neighborhood flare, revealing everyone’s true colors.

Fast-forward to 2009. Fifty years have passed, but are the people in the now all-black neighborhood any more enlightened?

Part of what makes this production so compelling is the use the same seven actors to play two sets of characters. By doing so, Norris is able to flush out the commonalities in the deceptively dichotomous eras.

The dual roles also allow actors to flex their acting muscles. And Good Theater’s Brian P. Allen has chosen a wonderfully versatile cast to bring Norris’ diverse characters to life.

Sally Wood delivers a fascinating performance as Betsy and Lindsey. Both are expectant mothers, but that’s where the similarity ends. Betsy, a deaf woman of Swedish descent, is demure. Lindsey is a fiery, very vocal Irish Catholic.

Wood’s performance as a deaf woman, complete with hearing-loss-affected speech, is dead-on, making her transformation into Lindsey all the more striking.

The contrast between Mark Rubin’s characters, Karl and Steve, is also quite dramatic. Karl is a nervous wreck, concerned about the safety of his wife, Betsy, and their unborn child (Kathy, played in 2009 by Roche). Steve is a self-confident jerk. Both are bigoted, but their demeanor and rationality are very different.

Roche deliverers a nice turn from fretting housewife (Bev) to educated lawyer (Kathy).

Lucas O’Neil actually steps into three distinct roles: a minister (Jim), real estate lawyer (Tom) and Russ and Bev’s son (Kenneth). What’s offensive language to Jim is commonplace to Tom. The characters are polar opposites. And O’Neil’s portrayal of Kenneth is hauntingly sad.

Underwood also tackles three roles. Two are character roles (Russ/Dan), with Underwood delivering a gripping performance as a disillusioned, grieving father in 1959, and an undaunted workman in 2009.

His third role is that of inventive set designer. Like the characters in the play, Good Theater’s set takes on two distinct personalities, in two eras. But unlike the characters, the set is the same house. Its transformation is ingenious.

Noelle LuSane’s (Francine/Lena) and Bari Robinson’s (Albert/Kevin) metamorphoses are more outward than inward, but still very effective in drawing parallels and upending perception.

“Clybourne Park” is much more than a commentary on racism. The adult-themed play artfully questions prejudice in all forms, whether it’s based on race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, disability (mental and physical) or preconceived notions about events and people.

Norris cunningly connects the seemingly disparate characters and inverts stereotypes. And Good Theater masterfully drives home his message, with the perfect combination of thought-provocation and humor.

 

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at: [email protected]