Coal Mine Theatre/Detroit, written by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Jill Harper, Coal Mine Theatre, July 8-August 7. Tickets here.
The first thing you need to know about the game Detroit it’s not really about Detroit. On the contrary, the prolific American playwright Lisa D’Amour sees the macro image of Detroit as a metaphor for the death of the American dream, among other things.
His 2010 play is set in what’s called an “inner-ring” suburb – those planned communities just beyond a big city, which basically represent the American Dream – in other words, your own home. and garden in a quiet neighborhood with low crime and good schools.
This particular collection of houses is called Bright, and all the streets have names relating to brightness and light in one way or another, which is part of the irony and/or satire that D’Amour present in Detroit.
There we meet a typical suburban couple, Mary (Diana Bentley), who works in an office, and Ben (Sergio Di Zio) who is a loan officer in a bank. Nevertheless, from the beginning, we learn that things are not going well. Mary suffers from acute anxiety and Ben has been dismissed from his position.
D’Amour sets up her contrasting couple in Sharon (Lisa Lambert) and Kenny (Craig Lauzon) who move in next door and are invited by Mary and Ben to a backyard barbecue.
There we learn that Sharon and Kenny met in rehab for drug addiction, are mostly unemployed, and like to have a good time. Indeed, throughout the play, the couple begins to exercise a certain seduction on Mary and Ben. In other words, Bright’s neighborhood suddenly started getting dangerous.
D’Amour has a lot to say, and so the play wanders everywhere, with tangents going off in all directions. Towards the end, she slips into a surreal world that has a touch of magical realism. The flight to the absurd suits its theme of dislocation, the loss of center, the need to face a disrupted world, but it impacts the structure of the piece, for me, in a somewhat negative way. .
To compound the sentiment of “I’ll go wherever my thoughts take me and its damn dramaturgy” from the playwright, just before the end she introduces a fifth character, Frank, played by the great Eric Peterson. At this point, the room takes a 90 degree turn away from our two couples, while Frank serves as a reminder of what the American dream once was.
While I take nothing away from the playwright D’Amour and her intentions, I found the play lost its focus about three-quarters of the way through, becoming a scattergun, with metaphors and symbols intertwined. stacking on top of each other. (I’m deliberately vague here, so as not to give anything away.)
However, Detroit is a multi-award winning and nominated piece that has been rewarded for its depth and breadth of exploration, and I agree that D’Amour was ambitious, perhaps too ambitious, in putting a lot of themes under the Detroit hat.
The acting is however superb, which means that the characters are very richly drawn.
Bentley portrays an unpredictable nervous nelly who is a tightly coiled spring, while Di Zio shows a pathetic attempt at trying to be Alpha Male. Lauzon is your perfect laid-back hippie, while Lambert gives us a Sharon who almost looks like a naive, childish figure talking at a mile a minute. (Special kudos to Lambert, who took over the role at the last minute.)
From these first impressions comes a cascade of character development twists overseen by director Jill Harper who keeps things in check. I must add that Peterson gives a particularly poignant performance as Frank.
If I have a little problem, it’s with Ken MacDonald’s set. You never know where the audience is when you go to Coal Mine, and for this piece the chairs are angled at either end, with a single row of chairs along the wall, opposite the long set showing the two rear- courtyards, with sliding doors in the houses. Unfortunately, it felt flimsy and creaky to me, and not well-constructed, although Kimberly Purtell’s lighting was certainly eye-catching.
Suffice it to say, Detroit joins a long list of provocative background pieces from Coal Mine. We expect nothing less from them, and while Detroit isn’t perfect, it is certainly interesting in terms of characters, relationships, and twists.
And a final note. Make sure to have dinner before going to Detroit as you will be assaulted by the hungry and appetizing smell of barbequed steaks and burgers.
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