Welcome to Wasteland City: Review of Eternity Playhouse’s Detroit

by theatrebloggers

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Detroit (2010), by Lisa D’Amour, is set in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, but while this beast looms over the characters, the play isn’t chained to its quarry. Instead, the piece is built around the personalities of its people. This makes for a far more engaging play than if it had been grounded in the quagmire of credit and debt, and no doubt is the reason why it was nominated for a Pulitzer.

In the heartland of middle-America, Mary and Ben are hosting their new neighbours, Kenny and Sharon, to a BBQ dinner. Ben has recently been fired from his job as a bank loan officer and is trying to start up a new financial planning business online. Kenny and Sharon are renting a house with literally nothing in it. They’re recovering drug addicts and are struggling to get their lives back on track.

Since The Great Gatsby, the American Dream has been a popular subject for examination and D’Amour takes up this perennial issue here. Mary and Ben’s life is falling apart around them, both financially and romantically, yet through it all they try desperately to cling onto the impressions of success. At a dinner, Mary brings out a platter boasting caviar and a special variety of pink salt. Kenny and Sharon are more honest in how they project their life, but even they fall victim to some self-conscious vanities. They buy drapes, but only enough to cover the front facing windows of their house. Against this, though, is a deeper desire to cast off these hollow trappings and get back to basics. Mary harbours a deep desire to go camping and be in nature (for instance). Importantly, through their encounter with Kenny and Sharon, Ben and Mary are offered the potential to let go of their tattered remains and start a fresh.

Lisa Chappell, Claire Lovering, James O'Connell, Ed Wightman (c) GezXavierMansfieldPhotography

Detroit intricately, though, often jarringly captures two American couples from completely different walks of life – Ben and Mary are middleclass white folk who ‘crave’ the tidy picket fence, whereas Sharon and Kenny are young, impulsive pleasure-seekers who met in rehab and are as working class as it gets. Delightfully, all performances are excellent. Heading the pack is Lisa Chappell, in this brilliantly rendered portrayal of the fear-haunted Mary. Chappell lathers the dialogue with brittle smiles and forced niceties, never missing an opportunity to milk the comedy. Ed Wightman as her deflated husband Ben manages to create some deliciously awkward tension and together, Wightman and Chappell are a disturbingly accurate picture of daggy, out of touch and increasingly sexless suburbanites. Nevertheless, it is Claire Lovering who produces the show’s standout performance. Lovering perfectly pitches the daffy exterior of Sharon, the recovering addict, glossing the character with a warm naivety that captures the audience. She is loveable trailer trash, though her youthful insight is refreshing for the exhausted-by-mundanity Mary. Lovering intertwines her performance with great timing and poignancy, allowing for real connection to be felt with her co-stars, particularly James O’Connell as Kenny, her handyman boyfriend and fellow addict. O’Connell feels authentic – he really could be from the streets of Detroit, trying to make a new start – though haunted by the past and his life’s current restrictions. These are good neighbours with bad credit, and the chemistry is a sight to behold.

For the most part this is a tightly wrought text (and a tightly wrought production, thanks to director Ross McGregor); D’Amour certainly knows how to set up a scene and walk the line between comedy and genuine feeling. However, the second Act is much weaker than the first. D’Amour spends a great deal of time developing her characters and setting up the plot, which keeps the audience engaged. But the second Act feels overstuffed, and the final monologue, although delivered perfectly, lacks thematic direction and is overwritten. The fact that Kenny and Sharon’s story also feels unresolved adds to the disappointment. This makes for a deflated finale (albeit, a fault in the writing) to what is otherwise a wonderful production.

Detroit is playing at the Eternity playhouse until the 16th of August. For more information see: http://www.darlinghursttheatre.com/whats-on/detroit

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