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Wednesday, May 21,2014

Curtain call: Communication breakdown

Peppermint Creek follows racial issues through time in ‘Clybourne Park’

by Paul Wozniak

Miscommunication is often the catalyst for dramatic action in storytelling, but in “Clybourne Park,” it’s the central thesis.

Using the backdrop of changing demographics in a real Chicago neighborhood from 1959 to 2009, Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning script explores intercultural com munication at its most broken and dysfunctional. Despite its dark themes and serious core, “Clybourne Park” is scathingly funny. As director Blake Bowen and the stellar cast of the current production at Peppermint Creek prove, humor may be the first step toward positive change.

“Clybourne Park” follows the impending sale of a single Chicago home from a white family to a black family in Act I (1959) and from a black family to a white family in Act II (2009). In both acts, race is definitely a factor, but the real focus of Norris’ script is the way whites discuss race, especially with non-whites.

Predictably the 1959 setting features overtly racist language steeped in xenophobia with a healthy dose of plain ignorance. In the 2009 setting, however, the racist language is far more coded and evasive — though every bit as potent.

As rich and layered as Norris’ script is, the real gem of this production is its all-star ensemble cast. Every character is rich and distinct, communicating non-verbal emotions as clearly as the organic dialogue. Each act simmers at the start with palpable tension before building to explosive finales that shake the characters — and the house itself — to its foundation. In the second act, the same actors play brand new characters with equal depth and precision while adding a layer of cohesion.

Standout performances come from Jenise Cook and Jack Dowd. Dowd’s characters are always grounded and authentic with a touch of intimidating menace. As a grieving father with a steely demeanor in Act I, Dowd is especially vibrant balancing unpredictable volatility with heartbreaking tenderness.

As the domestic help in Act I and the homeowner in Act II, Jenise Cook’s roles are more visual than verbal. Cook’s impressive array of incredulous facial expressions provide the necessary counter to the white characters who speak around and sometimes for her characters. When Cook does speak, her dialogue is often the most concise, revealing, and brutal of the entire show.

The show’s greatest strength might be its pacing. Bowen’s detail-oriented direction gives each act a sense of momentum, finetuning the seemingly random and clattering dialogue into a distinct but consistent rhythm. Bowen also helps the cast explore the script’s full dynamic range from its eerie silences to its explosive tantrums. The results are equal parts unsettling and hilarious and the perfect conclusion to Peppermint Creek’s theater season.

“Clybourne Park”

Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. 8 p.m. Thursday– Saturday, May 22-24 $15/$10 students & seniors 6025 Curry Lane, Lansing (517) 372-0945, peppermintcreek.org

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