Student productions get a bad rep. Audiences are trained since middle school to expect an easy comedy. Slapstick is fairly common; sometimes they take a more satirical route, and on occasion they are just bizarre.
Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park,” put on by the Department of Theatre, is not that. There are jokes, and they are pretty good jokes, but those jokes are laced into a discussion of race, handicap and political correctness, with a little LGBTQ+ discussion thrown in for good measure.
The main thing to note is that it is a discussion and not a bunch of sharp quips thrown from an obviously right character at straw men. The characters are flawed, the views are varied and issues are not necessarily resolved at the end.
That is OK though, because the play is enough of an emotional ride to keep anyone invested without having some sort of end point to look forward to. Thankfully, the actors bring the necessary energy to make this work.
The small cast ends up working double by altering their characters in the second half of the play, with the added challenge of the second-act characters being very different as the story jumps ahead 50 years.
Modern Chicago definitely suits the actors more with all the performances becoming much more lively. For instance, Hilary Scales does a complete turn when going from a timid housekeeper to a dominating force on stage.
The same is true for Wesley Guthrie, who seemed much better suited for a more comedic role in the second act. While in several ways his character does not change much from act to act, his first-act character could use some work. Going from lighthearted but tired to growling angry may work once for that type of character, but the juxtaposition was too jarring and, at times, a little funny. There has to be a few emotions between depressed and seething.
Act One also has issues trying to find something for the characters to do. There were several instances when a character would stand up and walk to another part of the room to sit down again. This happens numerous times and seems unnecessary, distracting and unrealistic.
Act Two seems to be where the meat of the play is. The set is much more interesting, and that is where the best performances are. It really seems like a completely different production, and I am not sure if that is intentional.
Overall I left with a pretty positive impression, though not blown away. The script and story are extremely solid, but the show itself takes time to get where it needs to be.
If you are looking for a fun, lighthearted time at the theater, this is not where to go. If you are OK with being challenged and potentially offended, it is definitely worth seeing. You will also pick up some pretty good offensive jokes.