Review: Clybourne Park (Canadian Stage/Studio 180)

 Pulitzer winning Clybourne Park impresses in Toronto

I couldn’t remember much about A Raisin in the Sun when I walked into Clybourne Park; a joint production for Canadian Stage and Studio 180 staged at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs. All I knew was that this show had something to do with it. I am especially glad I didn’t look at the program either. And with all that said, if you like surprises then I ask you to stop reading this review and go get yourself some tickets. This was one of the best and most enjoyable shows I have seen in a long while. Honestly, stop reading and order your tickets. This review will still be here when you come home talking about the show. Which I can almost guarantee you will be.

For those of you not down with surprises – or who have already seen this show – read on. I say this because I loved not knowing anything about the play’s structure. That said, even if you read this whole entry, I still must urge that you go and experience it for yourself.

Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and is currently on Broadway. So these are two impressive reasons to catch it of course, but equally impressive is the excellent ensemble cast, Joel Greenberg’s precise direction and perfect attention to timing. Few companies would have the chops to do this play justice and Studio 180 and Canadian Stage certainly fit that bill.

So most of us know something about A Raisin in the Sun; a great American classic about the struggles of a black family in 1959 trying to make a better life for themselves. Through luck and disagreement, they purchase a house in a white Chicago neighbourhood. This is met with opposition from their new neighbours.

With Jung-Hye Kim’s perfectly literal set that greets you from the get go – Clybourne Park unravels the tale of why the house was affordable in the first place. We see a middle aged couple packing their belongings. Michael Healey’s “Russ” mindlessly eats ice cream while his wife Bev (played by Maria Ricossa) forces optimism through a mindless debate about the origin of the word Neapolitan. Each is frozen through their grief as we learn of their son who hung himself in his bedroom after coming home from fighting in Korea.

Bev has enlisted the help of her 1950’a middle class community to try and help her husband. Their awkward preacher with the best of intentions comes for a visit. This is executed with genius comic timing by Jeff Lillico (think Ned Flanders) with the equally awkward jerky friend Karl (another great and hilarious performance by Mark McGrinder) – who brings along his pregnant and deaf wife, Betsy. Karl has another agenda for his visit; he wants to talk his friends out of selling their property to a Negro family.

Kimwun Perehinec’s Besty was so convincing I thought they must have taken pains to find a deaf actress. Rounding out the cast is the hired help Francine, played so beautifully by Audrey Dwyer. She really just wants to get out of the house before the discussion erupts and her husband Albert – yet another exceptional performance this time by Sterling Jarvis – who offers to stay and help move a trunk, despite his wife’s urging to leave.

A discussion of race and territorialism begins a slow build until it erupts from Russ – a build so perfect in fact that when the lights when out at intermission the show could have been over and both my date and I would have been very happy. We were so engaged we didn’t move from our seat though out intermission.

The lights went down again, and suddenly we were in 2009. Same house, new people. A suburban couple has applied for permits to tear the structure down to make way for a bigger structure and they are meeting with a couple representing the neighbourhood’s opposition. Each side has their lawyers involved. The discussion is filled with 2009’s distractions; tangents on travel, a marked informality that we all share today, and the overall ADD-ness of 2009; made possible by cell phone interruptions and people multitasked to the brink.

The through lines between this scene and the last are perfect. It isn’t wrapped too tightly in a bow but they are all there. The iced tea offered in the first scene is being sipped through a plastic green Starbucks straw now. Kimwun Perehinec’s character is still pregnant but she is now trying to create her suburban dream home on a city plot. There are even character tie-ins throughout. Dwyer and Jarvis are a black couple from Chicago – a city that produced president Barak Obama and Oprah Winfrey’s success. With merely a look Audrey Dwyer’s character shows who is boss and she expertly drives so much of the conversation.

My date Phoebe and I found ourselves in a discussion about ethnicity and urban diversity late into the evening after this show. She found Dwyer and Jarvis’s characters less relatable and we both agreed that this might stem from two very similar cities (Toronto and Chicago) with two different histories on race relations. I remember thinking this the last time I was in Chicago. If you are black in Chicago, there is a solid chance that your ancestry has lived in the States for many years. If you are black in Toronto, there is a higher chance that you have a more recent Caribbean ancestry. This is true for most of Toronto’s diversity and we talked about the GTA well into the night.

This play and its themes are universal. It is a hilarious and perfect script performed with flawless execution. You will see your parents in the first half of this show and your friends in the second half. If you are willing to go there, you might even see yourself.

Clybourne Park runs until April 28th at Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street
– Performances are Mon – Saturday 8:00 pm; Matinees Wednesdays 1:30 pm; Saturday 2:00 pm
– Tickets range from $22 – $49. PWYC tickets are available each Monday in person at the box office, beginning at 10AM.
–  Tickets are available at in person; online or by calling 416-368-3110

2 thoughts on “Review: Clybourne Park (Canadian Stage/Studio 180)”

  1. I am in complete agreement that this play should be seen. It’s very entertaining, with an extra helping of humour. For those who are reluctant to plan an evening’s entertainment where one is forced to confront racial bigotry, don’t worry. It’s not preachy, and doesn’t make one uncomfortable. These issues could take place in Toronto where we’ve seen gentrification in old neighborhoods e.g. Cabbagetown. Overall – highly recommended!

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