The New York Times writer Erik Piepenburg said, “Every city has a Clybourne Park.” For Theatre Erindale, Clybourne Park marks its second production of the season of Theatre Now.
Indeed, I think Piepenburg’s quote is not only accurate, but also reflective of modern society. Take the budding metropolis of Toronto, it’s dotted with ethnic lines separating Chinatown from Little Italy. I should go further and add that it’s not a coincidence that certain streets are lined with a particular grouping of people. In fact, as Clybourne Park wittily shows, these habitation arrangements are usually intentional.
Clybourne Park is divided into two acts spanning 50 years apart. In the first act, a white couple inhabits 406 Clybourne Street. The couple, Russ (Jackson Watt-Bowers) and Bev (Emily Clarke), are in the midst of selling their home. In the beginning scenes, Bev and Russ are a picturesque couple—almost pulled out of a dream house magazine. Theatre Erindale’s costuming was realistic and did justice to the context of the play. Bev was dressed in a vintage dress with a suave updo. Russ complemented her outfit with his own collared shirt.
Underneath the veneer of smiles, however, is a grieving household. When the couple’s only son Kenneth (Joshua Sidlofsky), returns home from the Korean war, he becomes the pariah of Clybourne Park. After confessing to killing civilians and other such brutal acts, Kenneth becomes ostracized by the community. Eventually, this pushes Kenneth to commit suicide.
What provided the much needed comic relief in between Russ and Bev’s arguments were Karl’s (Michael Ruhs) wit. Ruhs’ natural awkwardness added a touch of queerness to Karl’s sophisticated persona. Karl could have easily turned out to be a somber character. In the script, Karl has some pretty dense lines. At a cursory reading, his lines give off the impression of a sanctimonious preacher.
At one point, when Karl talks to Russ about why Russ has been absent in the community, he says, “Anyways, hate to commandeer your Saturday afternoon here, a man’s home, as they say, but, as we haven’t seen your face [Russ] at rotary of late I thought I might—“
Here, Russ cuts Karl off to ask him to get straight to the point.
Ruhs’ exaggerated portrayal of the character turned Karl’s excessive sophistication into a comic pompousness.
In the second act of the play, the storyline is reversed. Clybourne Park has now become a predominantly black neighborhood, and a white couple Steve (Michael Ruhs) and Lindsey (Jennifer Francis) are looking to buy 406 Clybourne Park. This time around, black owners Kevin (Cameron Grant) and Lena (KhaRa Martin) are wary of the white couple’s intentions. The couples discuss housing codes, but tensions arise when racial jokes are dropped. During the discussion surrounding the selling of the house, both couples walk on eggshells as they attempt to be politically correct. The attempt fails miserably.
“Having recent grad Cameron Grant back in the fold fresh from his stint at the Shaw festival, has been thrilling. These young actors have honoured a controversial and challenging script with grace, humour, maturity, and style,” David Matheson stated in his director’s note.
Martin and Grant assumed their new roles for the second act well. Dressed in a floral dress, Martin was feisty in Lena’s rebuttals to Steve and Lindsey. Martin’s clear voice resonated throughout the theatre. Grant, on the other hand, was suave in his portrayal of Kevin. Throughout the play, Grant was calm, yet confident. In a way, I did hope for more of an emotive performance from Grant.
Clybourne Park ran until February 11 at Theatre Erindale.