Grand Rapids Civic Theater has always maintained a relatively polished image for its patrons over the years, usually showcasing family programming for a majority of its season. Clybourne Park, their current show in production, pushes envelopes and issues that are a welcome change from the usual sometimes saccharine season lineup. Not to say at all the play is nothing but dark and dreary, heavens no, but the content is more daring than this patron of Civic has seen in recent years.
The plot concerns a small Chicago neighborhood’s response to potential housing integration in 1959, as well as a counterpoint discussion fifty years later taking up the second act. Russ and Bev, the couple moving out of the house, have no problem with a colored family moving in. Karl Lindner, a nosy neighbor, has other ideas, claiming the approaching gentrification will ruin property values once “they” enter the equation that is their neighborhood. Tensions mount and personal boundaries are crossed, until the patriarch explodes into blatant hateful profanity at his hopelessly bigoted and xenophobic neighbors, partially out of rage at the way they had treated his son who came back from Korea years before. The second act concerns a proposed addition on the same property by a 21st century white couple, now that the neighborhood is predominantly black. What starts out as well-intended negotiations shortly spirals into accusations of cultivating stereotypes among all parties; blacks, gays, Hispanics, and even WASPs are not safe. Language is used as a whip to stir debate between all parties as well as the audience.
What really struck me was the careful characterization of everyone involved. Karl, the neighbor, is hopelessly bigoted, yes, but he’s not a villain; he is simply a scared, flawed member of a xenophobic white community. To add even more complexity to his character, he cares deeply for his pregnant wife, who is deaf. He even goes so far to refrain from harsh language in her presence, even though she’s deaf and is not too good at lip-reading. He believes he’s doing the right thing by offering the incoming black family a buyout in order for them not to intrude on their carefully maintained community. Russ, the out-going patriarch, is not so clean-cut either, as he has a tendency to lash out in rage if poked and prodded too much by his neighbors. He loved his son dearly, which leads to a startling revelation at the climax of act one. The cast is splendid all around, which makes the show all the more enjoyable.
Believe it or not, even regarding every revelation thus far as to the plot, the show is a satirical comedy as well as moral dilemma drama. There are equal portions of dramatic soapboxing from both sides as well as sidesplitting wit and barbs exchanged over the course of the play. A questionably funny joke is even the focus of a plot point in the second act. The show is like its characters: complex, funny, heartbreaking, and memorable to the very end. Please check it out while it still lingers on Civic’s stage. Be sure to bring an open mind and let the play dare you to think about its sometimes uncomfortable, but relevant subject.