The Hampton Theatre Company always seem to shine when given a meaty, topical play to work with, and right now, given the unraveling of race relations in the heart of the country, it doesn’t seem there could be a more relevant play for them to produce than “Clybourne Park.”
This play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2011 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012, calls for a cast of seven to play 15 entirely different roles, and this cast does a stand-out job rising to the challenge under the masterful direction of HTC Executive Director Sarah Hunnewell.
The first act is set in 1959, when a black family moves into an all-white northwest Chicago neighborhood, and the second act, set in 2009, follows a white family buying the same house when the neighborhood has long been a black one.
If you’ve seen Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” it will prepare you for where Clybourne Park begins, but you don’t need to have seen “A Raisin in the Sun” to understand what is an old and very sad American story: even after all this time, black and white people still rarely live side-by-side.
Clybourne Park picks up the trail of “Raisin” character Karl Lindner, played by Joe Pallister as someone right out of a 1950s Rotary Club, in short sleeves and a tie, glasses and a ridiculous amount of faith in his beliefs about property values and race.
Karl Lindner is a representative of the white Chicago neighborhood who had offered to buy the black Younger family out of their real estate deal in “Rasin,” and “Clybourne Park” catches up with him as he goes back to the white family who sold the house to tell them of his offer.
In that house are a brooding husband and wife, Bev and Russ, who’ve lost their son to suicide after he returned from the Korean War.
Played by Anette Michelle Sanders and Matthew Conlon, they are both charming and disturbing in the way that people seem to have been in the 1950s — denying their feelings about their son’s death, which later erupt at the most horrible moments.
Mr. Conlon — a regular face at recent productions at HTC — does a particularly good study in mild-mannered midwestern vocal peculiarities and mannerisms, while reserving powerhouse rage for when he faces the subject of his son’s death.
Juanita Frederick, who plays the couple’s black maid, Francine, has oceans of emotions just beneath the surface of her terse responses to the couple’s requests as they pack to move. She knows her employers are not her friends, but she needs a job and she keeps her mouth shut, demurely refusing Bev’s attempted gift of a silver chafing dish — something not even her employer needs.
Her husband, Albert, is a sweetheart as played by Shonn McCloud, willing to lend a hand taking the couple’s son’s trunk downstairs when Karl, fresh from his time over at “A Raisin in the Sun”, rushes through the door to beg Bev and Russ to not sell their house to a black family.
HTC veteran Ben Schnickel, as their preacher friend Jim, tries to give them God’s perspective on the matter, while Karl’s pregnant, deaf wife, Betsy, played with great comic timing by Rebecca Edana, later comes inside from the hot car, adding a new level of absurdity to what is heard, what is actually said, and what is meant by the characters as they dance around their knowledge (or lack thereof) of their own racism.
A melee ensues, during most of which Francine and Albert are upstairs bringing down the trunk. When they come downstairs and end up in the middle of the mess, they stand awkwardly, almost frightened, as the white characters in the room barrage them with questions about whether they’d rather be with their own people than in a white neighborhood.
When everyone leaves, Bev begs Albert to take the chafing dish his wife has refused.
What does her statement mean? Well, it means exactly what it sounds like. No varnish. There is no varnish in this show that isn’t unpeeled.
Fast forward 50 years. Ms. Frederick, now plays Lena, the grand-niece of the black woman who’d bought the house. She’s still quiet, but she’s far more angry. The people who bought her house, now a historic building, want to tear it down and build their dream house in its place, and her neighborhood has started a petition drive against the project.
Her husband, Kevin (Mr. McCloud), is wearing shorts and seems entirely at ease. He tells the white family that he and his wife had just returned from a vacation in Prague. He asks them if they ski. He knows that he’s blowing the white characters’ minds about how they expect black people to be, and he’s having fun with every minute of it.
Ms. Edana, still pregnant, becomes Lindsey — a hysterical helicopter mom-to-be who wants the perfect house for her baby, while Mr. Pallister, sipping a Starbucks, is recast as her husband, Steve, who can’t help but think that everything Lena and Kevin say to him is really about race.
“No, we’re not questioning your ethics at all,” says Lena. “What we’re questioning is your taste.”
Ms. Sanders is recast as Kathy, a complete ditz of a real estate lawyer, who interrupts with the most absolutely inane banter possible, while Mr. Schnickel is recast as a gay attorney for the community who put together the petition, who can’t get off the phone to join the conversation he’s begun.
Matthew Conlon just up and steals the show as an excavator working in the backyard who digs up the dead Korean War veteran’s trunk from beneath a dead crepe myrtle tree. With sweaty dungarees, a stained t-shirt and an even more pronounced upper-midwest accent, he brings as much show-stopping ridiculousness to his character as the best of Hamlet’s gravediggers.
Peter-Tolin Baker, making his HTC debut as set designer, and set decorator Diane Marbury make good use of furniture on loan from several East End thrift shops. The scene doesn’t change from act to act, but the yellowing wallpaper and graffiti show a room that looks as if it aged 50 years over the intermission.
The details are important — in Act 2, the spackle bucket that now lives where Bev had kept the silver chafing dish says more than words ever could.
We live in a country where a black man can be president. But we don’t yet live in a country where we can honestly say we live side by side, and even be friends. There’s too much still hanging in the air between.
This production lights a candle to that volatile air. It’s a little fire in the grand scheme of things, but it matters. Go see it.
“Clybourne Park” runs at the Quogue Community Hall through March 29, with shows on Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m..
To reserve tickets, visit www.hamptontheatre.org, or call OvationTix at 1.866.811.4111.