Although it stretches over a 50-year period and introduces a whole set of new characters at the midway point, Clybourne Park stays true to its themes and forces you to consider just how far we've come after all. Most striking is how the play is really two within one -- the first half takes place in a house set in 1959 with the second part picking up in that same spot in 2009. Much has changed inside of the house and surrounding it, but the tension and hostility between the characters endures.
Yet not on the surface. In neither act does anyone blatantly come across as racist or even judgmental of another. A set of seven characters flock onto the stage together with different ways of life, values, and intentions all cramped into a living room they inhabit one afternoon. Many of them, but not all, are discussing what should happen to the house when the homeowners move away, and how their departure could affect the community at large. Over the course of their discussion, racist undertones begin to show and the truth begins to come out.
For the second act, the actors all return to the stage in different roles set 50 years ahead. All of the worst fears from the earlier period have come true, and the neighborhood has deteriorated. With a white family looking to move into what is now a largely black community, the tables have turned and so has the conversation. Even though the nature of the conversation has changed, the actors take on roles familiar to them. Inside the three sets of couples, there is still the docile and confrontational spouses, the stern and obedient pairing, and the oblivious and repressed ones. Capping them off is the well-intentioned peacemaker who looks to give some perspective but only winds up joining the fray once his buttons have been pushed. Despite whatever advances society has made in race relations over that long period of time, generations later the house stands witness to all the same turmoil.
Between the two times, little else has changed. The same innocent banter about the heat and country's capitols persist. Only when the characters grow uncomfortable with each other does conflict arise. There's hardly anything in between throughout this play, as the story do-si-dos between the light and the heavy. Both are achieved to perfection; these moments complement each other nicely as none of them -- nor the audience -- could stand too much of either.
Some of the most powerful moments of the play actually take place in between dialogue as the characters recover and think to themselves about how to proceed. Should they apologize, or just move on? Is it rude to leave, or are they overstaying their welcome? And, most of all, how can they look ahead when they are so severely attached to the past?