American playwright, Lisa D’Amour wrote Detroit in 2010 for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, which was awarded to Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris.
The play is set in the backyards of two next-door-neighbours, in the first ‘ring’ of suburbia, now, and, although, the play is called Detroit it could be, says the writer, any mid-size city in the US of A. Houses built in the 1950’s (you know the kind, the Australian Housing Commission provided them, too – my mum and dad’s house), that had five models that you could choose from, in the post-World War II optimism of the American Dream. An introductory quotation in the play text from Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times in October, 1997, illuminates the present environment of the play:
Plywood has a lifetime of forty years. Over time, the glue that holds the plywood together dries up. Then, walls buckle, split and peel. Panels pop loose. Rooms, doors and windows morph into trick-or-treat versions of themselves.
Life, too, can unglue, buckle, and pop, and loosens us up over time.
Mary (Lisa Chappell) and Ben (Ed Wightman) live in one of the houses, their economic stability, rocky, at best, Ben having lost his job, and is in the planning of a new (if fantastic) self-driven one, while Mary struggles unhappily with hers, making alcohol a comfort to ‘survive’. Next door, Sharon (Claire Lovering) and Kenny (James O’Connell), have just moved in, and seem to have no strong support about them, belatedly, we discover, that they are refugees from a drug rehabilitation centre. Being neighbourly, Mary invites the newcomers to a barbecue. In a number of scenes we move from one backyard to another as these bereft and nearly rudderless individuals (all) reach out for human contact and recognition. All these people have lives and they all have secrets from each other:
“This is awesome” says Sharon, “It is so awesome. I mean, who invites their neighbours over for dinner anymore. … Neighbours. I mean why is that word still in the dictionary? It’s archaic – am I saying the right word? Because you don’t need to talk to your neighbours anymore. I mean does anyone borrow a cup of sugar anymore? No, you drive to the twenty-four-hour grocery.”
These characters give more than a cup of sugar to each other, in the context of the world of the play, and the grinding desperation of a Detroit reality, the reality of the hand-to-mouth circumstances of these neighbours, reveals in excruciating comic observation the feckless miasma that these otherwise decent human beings are in and takes us to a conflagration of lives that is tragic in the real sense of the celebratory animal need for connexion. An ordinary painful instinctual reach for nature, for animal pods of comfort with each other, in revolt to the enforced duties of ‘civilisation’ in the customised modern world and its ‘rules’.
Ms D’Amour with the compassion and cruelly wry eye of a Chekhov has written a play of Stanislavskian truth. The plot is subtle, the characters recognisable, the observations tough and the moral (meaning) cauterising. It is as funny as it is pain filled. It is as accurate a portrait of the growing, contemporary poor as one can bear. That the play is American does not blunt its resonant social meanings for us Australians. This ‘first ring’ of suburbia and its denizens is in as urgent a need and desolation, here, in Australia, as it is in the USA. Just look around – the ominous signs in/of our present financial world simply combusts our feelings of the fear of what seems to be, for the acute, a slow spiralling to disaster – to a real sense of the metaphoric ‘homelessness’ of our present civilised human species. Has the promised dream of capitalism failed us? How can we continue to live, survive, with dignity?
This is a very good play and the actors give performances of admirable compassion and care. The comic pain and the painfully comic. What this production, of Ms D’Amour’s play lacks, is the careful attention to the Chekhovian detail of the world it is set in. Ross McGregor, the director, brings the meat to the barbecue but does not cook it. The time it takes to cook the meat, the consequential sensory additions of the sound and smell of the backyard sharing is not presented. The dense instructions to the sounds , from the writer, of the environment of the play (composer & sound designer, Jeremy Silver), disappears after the interludes of scene change, instead, of remaining subtly present throughout the play. This production of the play sits in a theatre absolutely obviously (set and costume design, by Tobhiyah Stone Feller) and not in the reality of the world that Ms D’Amour indicates is possible – and if it did, it would create, the kind of imaginative magic an audience needs to gently build the very essence of theatre – atmospheric belief in the world of the play.
Mr McGregor seems to feel the need to entertain his audience with laughter and rushes the opportunities of the atmospheres of the play, and the actors’ opportunities to reveal character (see my Of Mice and Men observations), rather than to allow the audience to discover what kind of play it really is, with the slow reveal of a world we naturally recognise, because we come from it – we know the smell of barbecue, we know the sound of air-conditioners. He spoon-feeds the comedy with his actors’ performances, instead of allowing us to endow at the speed of Chekhov’s/D’Amour’s eye. This production does not really settle down or find deep impact until the second half, after the interval, with the hilarious outrageousness of the ‘primitive’ rave of the couples, and the sobering arrival of a figure from the past, Frank (Ronald Falk).
Mr Falk’s belated entrance (giving a wonderful performance. Doesn’t one miss the quality of his experience in the present day casting choices of our major companies? – YES!), to the world of the play has an affecting depth of powerful resonance as his Frank tells us:
I lived around the corner for twenty-nine years. … They were magic times. Kids running ragged everywhere, skinning their knees, catching beetles. Lemonade stands. All the fathers pulling into the driveways at five-thirty sharp in their Belvederes, their Furies. Kids running up to their arms. Our arms.
But this ‘golden times’ memory has, from Mr Falk, a pained self-delusional tone and later, when he continues:
I mean, not everyone was living this life. It was 1968. But the whole country wasn’t hippies. Most of us were just living like this.” Mr Falk delivers Frank’s speech, as if to convince himself of that truth, as much as Mary and Ben, and us, his listeners.
Most of us, in the Eternity Theatre, living a life like this – delusional? Just what, I asked myself, “Do I see, feel, around me? How many of us are delusional about the prosperity of our society to protect ourselves from sadness, from a despair of our culture, local, Australian and internationally?”
Detroit, then, a good play with good acting. Worth seeing. Go.
Company: Darlinghurst Theatre Company
Venue: Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, Sydney
Dates: 17 July – 16 August 2015
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television