In Act 1 of "Clybourne Park," the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play by Bruce Norris receiving a potent Baltimore premiere at Center Stage, civility breaks down as white and black characters in a modest Chicago house start talking about the one thing they'd all rather avoid — race.
"I am ashamed of every one of us," says Bev, a woman determined to emit a June Cleaver neatness and brightness, even though her husband is no Ward, and her son, who served in the Korean War, is now just an unsettling memory.
There's plenty of shame to go around as well in Act 2, when it's 50 years later and a whole new group of tense people are in that same profoundly haunted house, once again skirting around, then plunging recklessly and pathetically, into the same treacherous issue.
Once you know that the address where all the action takes place is 406 Clybourne Street, the impact of words and actions hits home all the more forcefully.
This is the destination the Younger family is heading for at the end of Lorraine Hansberry's pathbreaking 1959 drama "A Raisin in the Sun." It's the bungalow where they will have to face the consequences of being the first black residents in a white enclave.
Norris envisions the flip side of "Raisin" in Act 1 of "Clybourne Park," focusing on the sellers, who inadvertently pave the way for integration (they let a third party find a buyer), and the neighbors troubled by the development.
Representing those neighbors is Karl Lindner (James Ludwig), a character who appears in Hansberry's work — the homeowner's association representative who offers to buy the house back from the Youngers before they can move in. Karl is just as unctuous and obstinate in Norris' play, this time trying to persuade Bev and Russ to halt the transaction.
Karl is a reasonable man, of course. He knows that change may come to the neighborhood. "And I can support that," he says, "if it's change for the better. But I'll tell you what I can't support, and that's disregarding the needs of the people who live in a community."
Poor, naive Bev (Beth Hylton) suggests that the people who bought her house have needs, too, but she is no match for Karl.
Then again, she's no saintly progressive, either. Her heart might be in the right place, but she's about as understanding of African Americans as the overly manicured white ladies in the recent hit film "The Help." The way Bev chats with her maid, Francine (Jessica Frances Dukes), never actually hearing the responses, is one of the most stinging elements in Norris' often brilliantly crafted dialogue.
No one really listens in "Clybourne Park," not intently. At least there's an explanation for Karl's pregnant wife, Betsy (Jenna Sokolowski). She's deaf.
Bev and Russ (Jonathan Crombie) occupy the same home, but, sometimes, different planets, especially when it comes to dealing with a past tragedy. The goofy, hernia-troubled local minister, Jim (Jacob H Knoll), seems determined to filter out anything unpleasant; he's like a greeting card with a bland message you don't bother reading.
Francine and her husband, Albert (Charlie Hudson III), who inadvertently gets drawn into the thick of things when he stops by to pick her up, have long mastered the art of superficial interaction with white people. But that defense mechanism isn't sturdy enough to keep them safe in this unhappy house.
Norris juggles all these people, their needs and motivations, with a sharp touch that can leave deep scars, even when delivered with wonderfully wicked humor (including the kind of zingers that sparked the episode of TV's "All in the Family" when Archie Bunker found out a black family was moving to the block).
In Act 2, the playwright turns the tables. Now, there's a white couple moving in, Steve (Ludwig) and Lindsey (Sokolowski). Now, there's a black couple, Kevin (Hudson) and Lena (Dukes), wary of the newcomers and their radical gentrification plans for 406 Clybourne Street. This time, both sides have lawyers with them.
Although the new scenario is provocative, parallels with Act 1, in terms of lines and situations, get a little too pat, and the characters sometimes get a little too obvious. The trunk that turns up in both acts is an awfully heavy-handed device. The ending of the play tries hard, and not quite successfully, to tie both halves together and add a deeper layer to the work.
None of that, however, detracts from the central thrust of "Clybourne Park," its well-timed method of peeling away facades, prying into minds and hearts, and, ultimately, holding up a mirror to all of us. A post-racial world? Get real.
The Center Stage production, directed with a sure hand by Derrick Sanders, features a cast of vibrant, assured actors (most of them making company debuts).
Hylton is terrific as Bev, nailing the character's airhead-y and rather poignant sides with equal nuance. In Act 2, she also does effective work as Kathy, a lawyer with a connection to the past history of the house.
As the moody, volatile Russ, Crombie gives a compelling performance, allowing just enough softness to emerge at key moments (just the way he says "Ulan Bator" speaks volumes about the man inside the hard shell). Crombie turns around in Act 2 to give a juicy portrayal of Dan, a gruff construction worker who finds something of note in the backyard.
Ludwig brings out every oily drop of Karl's condescension in the first act, and is just as adept communicating the spring-loaded nature of Steve, the new owner of the house, in the second (no-clue Steve just can't wait to stop "the same, predictable little euphemistic tap dance around" race). Sokolowski shines as Steve's wife Lindsey, and, even more so, as the deaf Betsy in Act 1.
Dukes tellingly captures Francine's dignity and simmering resentment, Lena's cool exterior and the wounds underneath.
Hudson goes over the top as Albert in a kind of Chris Rock-does-Stepin Fetchit way. All the roles in Act 1 invite mannerism and exaggeration, perhaps, but Hudson's performance stands out strangely. He's spot-on, though, as the good-natured Kevin. Knoll is particularly effective as the absurdly smiley reverend in Act 1.
Scenic designer Jack Magaw has conjured up a finely atmospheric home, beautifully lit by Thom Weaver. Reggie Ray's costumes set the period for each act perfectly.
Next month, Center Stage will unveil company artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah's latest play, "Beneatha's Place," a response to "Clybourne Park." It also springs from "A Raisin in the Sun," contains a character from the Hansberry classic, and starts in 1959 before moving to the present day.
Looks like the conversation on race is going to get more interesting and intense by the day around here.