In ‘Clybourne Park,’ generations change but racism remains

“Clybourne Park” has been around for a few years – it won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and a best play Tony in 2012 — but Bruce Norris’ searing drama about America’s frayed race relations seems more relevant than ever. A well-cast and sharply directed production at the Laguna Playhouse, which opened Sunday, reminds us that the intervening years have made the problem seem more intractable than ever.

To set up his multi-generational story, Norris answers an irresistible question: What happens after “A Raisin in the Sun” ends?

Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal play about being black and poor in mid-20th-century America ends on a hopeful note. Taking advantage of a small inheritance, the Younger family prepares to relocate to a better Chicago neighborhood called Clybourne Park.

But Hansberry hints at troubles ahead. A representative from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association pays a visit, telling them that it might be unwise for a black family to move to a white area. (In earlier versions of the play the downside of the relocation was made more explicit, echoing Hansberry’s own experience of harassment as a girl when her family made a similar move.)

“Clybourne Park” shows us the other end of that real estate transaction. It opens on a seemingly happy scene set in the late 1950s, the same era as Hansberry’s play.

A middle-aged couple, Bev and Russ (Heather Ayers and JD Cullum), are preparing to move to a home that’s closer to Russ’ workplace. As the play opens he sprawls on the sofa, eating ice cream and reading National Geographic. Bev fusses over the packing with her longtime hired help, a black woman named Francine (Jennifer Shelton).

At first it seems like a happy domestic scene. But there’s a huge elephant in the room.

Russ is despondent over his son’s suicide, even though it has been several years since the troubled young Korean War veteran hanged himself in his room upstairs. Bev is trying gamely to cope with her grief and her husband’s misery, but her Donna Reed act can’t disguise her desperation.  She has invited an awkward young local minister (Bryan Porter) to try helping her husband, but he’s comically ill-equipped for the task.

Karl (Christian Pedersen), the same character in “Raisin” who advised the Younger family not to move, pays a visit with his pregnant Swedish wife, Betsy (Jennifer Cannon). As Karl presses Russ ever more urgently to change his mind, Russ finally explodes. Poor Francine and her husband Albert (Jay Donnell) are caught in the crossfire. At this point, we learn a few nasty secrets about Clybourne Park and its residents. Suddenly, we understand why Russ wants no part of this neighborhood.

The play’s second act unfolds half a century later. A well-off young couple, Steve and Lindsey (Pedersen and Cannon), are holding a meeting in the Clybourne Park house, now graffiti-covered and abandoned. They have brought along their lawyer Kathy (Ayers) to go over details of their plan to raze the home and build a lavish, huge replacement. Representing the neighborhood are two black residents, Lena and her husband Kevin (Shelton and Donnell). They have brought along their own legal eagle from the owners association, Tom (Porter).

JD Cullum and Heather Ayers (foreground) and Jennifer Cannon, Jay Donnell and Jennifer Shelton (from left, background) appear in a scene from “Clybourne Park” at the Laguna Playhouse. (Photo by Ed Krieger)

At first, the conversation is filled with breezy chatter. But there’s tension in the air; everyone’s talk of foreign trips and arguments over geography hint at sub rosa rivalries.

Lena, named after her great aunt, who’s the matriarch in Hansberry’s play, wants the character of the now-black neighborhood to be preserved, though she and her husband admit that it went through a period of squalor before its desirable inner-city location made it attractive to affluent professional couples like Steve and Lindsey. Tom, an expert on the codes and restrictions that the city has put in place to retain the neighborhood’s charm, just wants to push quickly through the thick document.

The meeting devolves into a showdown that bares ugly racial attitudes and festering resentments. While it’s less effective than the play’s first act (Russ has a real reason to be fuming with anger while these people are simply self-centered, petulant and really bad listeners), the scene’s climax unearths old racial frictions that 50 years have failed to heal. And the second act has some wonderful moments of comic relief as a dull-witted contractor name Dan (Cullum) interrupts the debate at exactly the wrong moments.

Director Matt August deftly balances the play’s many laughs with moments of anger, provocation and profound sorrow. It’s a delicate feat that wouldn’t work without a strong cast, each of whom does wonders to create a pair of contrasting but related characters.

Pedersen is deliciously repulsive as two different kinds of bigot:  well-meaning community father and an ostensibly liberal hipster. Ayers and Cannon have some fun with highly contrasting roles, too. In each act, Donnell and Shelton play spouses with amusingly similar relationship dynamics.

It’s Cullum who steals the show with his two deft turns. In the first act, the way he carefully calibrates Russ’ slow burn to a cataclysm of pain and fury is masterful. And in the second act he gets to play the kind of blue-collar oaf who has been a tension-breaking device since Shakespeare.

D Martyn Bookwalter has created a set that transforms convincingly from Eisenhower-era blandness to the hope and fresh tensions that characterized the early Obama years. Anne Closs-Farley’s costumes capture each era without being overly obvious about stylistic adherence.

Provocative, even dangerous, Norris’ play unflinchingly challenges all assumptions. His message is painful yet as clear as a shouted epithet: Almost 60 years after Hansberry’s play debuted, racism endures. Only the terms of the problem and the words people use have changed.

‘Clybourne Park’

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach

When: Through June 24. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday. No performance June 14 at 2 p.m. or June 19 at 7:30 p.m. Additional matinee June 17 at 5:30 p.m.