In a surprisingly gutsy move, the Lyric Repertory Company has played the high-voltage drama card again in its 2019 season. The Lyric’s trademark is feel-good comedies and small-cast musicals, after all. But the company’s artistic directors Richie Call and Jason Spelbring have assembled a group of performers who represent a high-water mark of talent this year. So why not go for broke?
That gamble pays off beautifully in the Lyric’s ongoing production of the award-winning drama Clybourne Park. Under the amazing direction of Lyric artistic producer Adrianne Moore, that show is marvelously performed by a brilliant ensemble cast.
Written by Bruce Norris in 2010, Clybourne Park is considered to be a spin-off of A Raisin in the Sun, which the Lyric debuted earlier this season. The play’s first act is set in 1959, just hours after the climax of A Raisin in the Sun. Its second act is set 50 years later, at a time when many things have changed, but nothing that matters.
In addition to being an emotionally charged drama, Clybourne Park also offers healthy doses of biting satire. That makes the Lyric production blisteringly funny on one hand and disturbingly thought-provoking on the other.
Lyric veteran Toby Tropper provides the only character link between A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park. He plays Karl, a know-it-all neighbor trying to stall the integration of an all-white Chicago community to self-righteous perfection in both productions. Tropper co-stars with seven equally talented actors, with some of them being familiar faces from the splendid cast of A Raisin in the Sun.
Although those performers don different characterizations in each act of Clybourne Park, the play’s 50-year time-span does nothing to mitigate the onstage fireworks as their confrontations evolve from being based strictly on racial tensions to other motivations including issues of political correctness, sexual orientation and economic status.
The performances by the cast of Clybourne Park are excellent across-the-board. But watch out for Jeremy Keith Hunter; he can steal scenes even when he doesn’t have any lines to speak. Tropper is also particularly amusing when he returns in the second act as Steve, a self-professed bleeding-heart liberal, until you get under his skin. Madison Kisst displays real dramatic chops and delivers some of the show’s most on-target satire with deadpan aplomb.
Other members of the show’s ensemble are Paul Michael Sandberg, Kenny Bordieri, Alaina Dunn, Julia Hochner and AJ Black.
This Lyric production also has an all-star team working miracles backstage. Kudos especially to Jon Savage for designing a homey Act 1 set that could be ingeniously transformed into a abandoned hovel during the most entertaining intermission in local theater history.
This Lyric show is definitely a tour-de-force, but not necessarily a comfortable one to watch. The performances are so authentic that audience members may experience a sense of voyeuristic unease as the play’s conflicts unfold; that feeling is only heightened by the claustrophobic confines of the intimate Black Box Theatre on the USU campus.
In many respects, Clybourne Park is even stronger material than A Raisin in the Sun because it hits closer to home. Audience members might feel able to distance themselves from the impact of events depicted in A Raisin in the Sun by thinking that kind of thing doesn’t happen nowadays. Clybourne Park allows no such comforting rationalizations. Norris’ script takes too many things that we all think, but never say, and puts them front and center where they can’t be denied.
In retrospect, Clybourne Park seems to suggest that, regardless of race, sexual orientation or economic status, people are all pretty much the same – and that may not be a good thing.
Additional performances of Clybourne Park are slated at the USU Black Box Theatre through Aug 2. For ticket information, please visit lyricrep.org.