Penfold Theatre Company's Clybourne Park

This company has vibrant success with Bruce Norris' racial drama that shows how far we haven't come in 60 years

For its production of Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize as well as Olivier and Tony awards, Penfold Theatre Company has assembled an artistic team so strong that the show's vibrant success comes as no surprise. Sharp writing, thoughtful design, and powerful performances of characters literally echoing through time make for an important evening at the Rollins Theatre.

Given current discussions about racial equity, affordability, and gentrification in Austin, the relevance of the play to this community is clear. It takes place in two time periods: the Fifties and the present. In the earlier era, a middle-class white family is moving out of the neighborhood, and, to their neighbors' subtle horror, a black family is moving in. (That would be the Youngers, from Lorraine Hansberry's American classic A Raisin in the Sun – it's suggested that this play takes place before and after that drama's events.) In our time, the neighborhood is being gentrified after 50 years of predominantly black occupancy. A young white couple wishes to buy the house and remodel it, while a black couple from the neighborhood housing board seeks to defend the area's cultural history. The first act displays a white culture baby-stepping toward progress, accepting of change only until it's affected them personally; the second act shows how little that culture has changed – offense turns to defense, but that pesky, unacknowledged white privilege remains.

Each actor plays two roles that mirror each other. As both Karl, the neighbor in the past, and Steve, the white home-buyer in the present, an exquisite Robert Matney expertly conveys the white frustration that occurs when an argument sounds reasonable in his head, only to sound like blatant, systemic racism once the words leave his mouth. Babs George plays Bev, the mourning mother of the Fifties, and Kathy, the whip-smart lawyer in the present, capturing a wonderful evolution of power between the two characters. Michelle Alexander and Jarrett King play a married couple in both eras: she the housekeeper and he the helpful husband in the past, and members of the neighborhood's housing board in the present. They make the strongest couple, maintaining dignity and composure in the face of some pretty ridiculous white neuroses. Ryan Crowder and Stephen Price turn in fully realized performances as well.

Everything is anchored around the house, the neighborhood in which it sits, and the memories that occur within its walls. Desi Roybal cleverly sets us inside the home, with simple wood framing and black walls, but three backdrops, suspended upstage and covered with beautifully hideous wallpaper, allow each of us to imagine what the home looks like. Lowell Bartholomee's sound design is woven masterfully into the play, perfectly mixed and leveled, and even continues to tell the story during intermission, moving us forward in time with a procession of period-appropriate music and news clips. Rachel Atkinson nails the lighting, subtle enough to complement and enhance the stunning performances.

The one fly in the play's ointment involves one of the characters played by Liz Beckham. She plays Betsy in the first act, Karl's pregnant wife who is also deaf, and Lindsey in the second, Steve's wife who's also pregnant and clearly "hearing." Though Beckham portrays both characters skillfully, and, as Betsy, delivers a stellar deaf vocal intonation, clearly researched and respectful, the fact that a play so sensitive to ideas about race and culture has crafted a deaf character that must, by necessity of the play's mechanics, be played by a hearing actor makes it insensitive to the deaf community. It should be noted that the problem lies in the script and is not the fault of the production; indeed, Penfold has included ASL interpretation during the run, so one may assume this particular hitch was reconciled between at least some of the deaf community and the production.

Even with this element, or perhaps especially because of it, many valid points and questions are raised. It sometimes feels like we're in a world that raises important issues faster than those involved can learn how to properly and civilly discuss them, but this show surely represents a solid starting point.

Clybourne Park

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Through June 5
Running time: 2 hr., 10 min.

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Penfold Theatre Company, Bruce Norris, Robert Matney, Liz Beckham, Babs George, Michelle Alexander, Jarrett King, Desi Roybal, Lowell Bartholomee, Rachel Atkinson

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