It begins, as so much entertainment in the '50s did, as a frothy sitcom, featuring fizzy characters willing to give their all to see that everybody lives happily ever after, because it is 1959, and despite:

  • The messy suicide of Kenneth (Timothy Redmond), who was Russ (Richard Howard) and Bev's (Lynda DiVito) son.

  • Russ's teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown because the pain of Kenneth's death hasn't abated even after several years.

  • The fact they have unknowingly sold their home in Clybourne Park (yes, the same fictional neighborhood in "A Raisin in the Sun") to a black family.

    And that's where the reality hits the fan in this stunning Center Rep production of this provocative 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner. Yet we find ourselves laughing throughout the show, while cringing at the same time.

    There is nothing frothy about the second half of the first act; in fact it's much closer to rabid than frothy, as neighborhood leader Karl (Craig Marker) visits the sold home with his wife, the deaf and very pregnant Betsy (Kendra Lee Oberhauser), to try to prevent an even unwitting bit of so-called "blockbusting" from taking place.

    It is a hugely ugly sequence that makes contemporary audience members squirm, taking heart in only the fact in that in the 50 years since then the world is a much better, kinder, gentler and more tolerant place. Still, it's difficult to see the "Leave It to Beaver" world explode as violently as a firecracker held too long.


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    But then it's intermission, we buy some ice cream and talk about what we've just seen. Then we exchange smiles, ready for the second act, set in 2009, a year before the play made its debut.

    It should be interesting to see, we note, what a half-century of evolution has done. And sure enough, the seven characters in Act 2 have some similarities -- there are two couples, one of the women is pregnant -- to those they played in Act 1. And it's clear they grew up in a very different world.

    They are more sophisticated -- there are now two lawyers in the room as Clybourne Park neighbors discuss what sort of renovations can be may be made by Steve and Lindsey (Marker and Oberhauser) when they move to Clybourne Park as one of the few white families and remodel the old home of Russ and Bev. And everyone's a global traveler. The discussion is broken up with comments on the various places they've vacationed and the various types of food they've eaten.

    But have they really changed all that much?

    That remains to be seen as the show moves deeper into the second act, and the long history of Clybourne Park visits the old community again, for better or worse, exploring issues of race, class and gender roles -- political correctness be damned -- in exchanges that are at times brutally sharp.

    The show is compellingly performed by this talented and skillful cast, directed by Center Rep Artistic Director Michael Butler, who has filled the show with effective details throughout.

    J.B. Wilson has designed a set that covers the half-century of passing time and fortune in one house, beginning in Act 1, with a classic two-story Midwestern tract home, that, over the years, shows its years and hard wear through the changing of flats and set pieces designed around the home's bones to show how it has fallen on hard times.

    Elizabeth Poindexter has designed some wonderfully effective costumes, making them look real for both eras of the production -- the contemporary costumes are familiar and comfortable, and the '50s costumes reflect the era without falling prey to the stereotypical look of what has begun to pass as '50s style.

    Theater Review

    What: "CLYBOURNE PARK," by Bruce Norris, directed by Michael Butler for Center Rep
    Where: Dean Lesher Center for the Arts, Civic Drive at Locust, Walnut Creek
    When: through March 1
    Running time: 2 hours
    Tickets: $36-$52, 925-943-7469 or www.centerrep.org.