4 characters (and a play) with an identity crisis


(c) Michael Brosilow

Kate Arrington (left) plays Sharon and Laurie Metcalf is Mary in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of "Detroit."

Review: Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit”
at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

When a new play leaves its author’s hands, it ceases to be a specific private conception and becomes the mutable object of interpretation. Its ever-evolving meaning derives from the experience and insight of the next director­­, cast and audience.

I was reminded of this simple truth by the disjunction between my viewing of Lisa D’Amour’s play “Detroit,” in its world premiere run at the Steppenwolf Theatre, and the playwright’s commentary in the program book. Whereas D’Amour talks about “Detroit” in terms of community relationships, and what happens when neighborhoods change and conventional interaction is upset, to my mind this rather troubled play has nothing to do with any of that. 

What D’Amour has written is a psychodrama of almost clinical particularity, the collision of four deeply troubled souls (two couples) that could be set almost anywhere. Its stark intimacy rings of Samuel Beckett and its themes of lies and delusion seem to reprise Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Indeed, D’Amour’s debt to Albee will become evident enough when Steppenwolf produces “Virginia Woolf” later this season.

It’s as if D’Amour set out to write one play and ended up fashioning something quite different. In the program notes, she says Detroit could be any urban center, but that the real setting of her play is a “first-ring” suburb, where the modest homes were all built half a century ago and all seem to have been stamped from a few cookie cutter designs.

Yet, in the “Detroit” that finally reached the stage, no such sociological motifs have any apparent meaning or relevance. Kevin Depinet’s impressive set does show us the backside and back yards of two closely proximate houses, one nicely kept with the requisite suburban trappings of grill and picnic table with umbrella. The other place, devoid of life signs or improvements and in need of paint, betrays its long vacancy.

So much for the transforming neighborhood as a theme. D’Amour does, for just a moment, seem to be headed down that path in the opening scene as middle-aged, longtime residents Mary and Ben are hosting their younger new neighbors, Sharon and Kenny, at a barbecue.

But we quickly learn our true course when we discover that these kids met in drug rehab, and that they dwell in a version of reality well outside the ring of suburban normalcy. We are not in a play about social alienation, but rather about personal isolation and terror.  And the two youngsters are not the only ones here struggling against the fly-paper of life.

D’Amour’s women are more convincingly drawn than her men. Laurie Metcalf is fascinating as Mary, bored with a dead-end job, resentful of her husband’s new leisure, yet posturing like him as the properly attuned suburbanite. She’s also a desperate alcoholic.

A lovely, vulnerable Kate Arrington nearly makes this her show as the emotionally reeling Sharon, a comfort to the boozy Mary and yet never quite free of her own addictions. Happily, some of the play’s best writing falls to Sharon in crazy-quilt monologues that Arrington renders as magnetic as they are mystifying.

No clear personality emerges in Mary’s husband Ben, a recently unemployed banker who envisions independence as a Web-based financial adviser. Ian Barford’s Ben is a vaguely expansive character, though ever-conscious of the need to appear the centered, regular guy. When it’s time to grill, he cheerily refers to the steaks as “these puppies.”

Kevin Anderson faces the greatest challenge as Sharon’s co-dependent, Kenny. The most broadly sketched of the play’s characters, Kenny is more catalytic than active. Still Anderson does make the best of an amusing scene in which Kenny and Ben, left alone, contemplate a guys’ night out.

Ultimately, the thin veil of delusion burns away in a catastrophe that registers as less than plausible. So does the aftermath. While this uneven enterprise has its moments, they are mere memories at the end.

Through Nov. 7. Steppenwolf.org. Call (312) 335-1650.

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Lawrence B. Johnson
Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.