'SUPERIOR DONUTS' HAS TOUGH GLAZE, SOFT CENTER
Written by Tracy Letts; directed by Spiro Veloudos; scenic design, Matthew Whiton; costume design, Mallory Frers; lighting design, Shawn Boyle; sound design, Ashan Gailus; fight choreography, Hannah Husband; production stage manager, Maureen Lane; assistant stage manager, Eliza Mulcahy
Cast in order of appearance:
Max Tarasov, Steven Barkhimer; Officer Randy Osteen, Karen MacDonald; Officer James Bailey, De’Lon Grant; Lady Boyle, Beth Gotha; Arthur Przybyszewski, Will LeBow; Franco Wicks, Omar Robinson; Luther Flynn, Christopher James Webb; Kevin Magee, Zachary Eisentat; Kiril Ivakin, Steven James DeMarco
Compared to playwright Tracy Letts’ bizarre and audaciously dysfunctional characters in Bug, Killer Joe, and August: Osage County, the oddball denizens of Superior Donuts, the last remaining local coffee shop in a rapidly changing Uptown Chicago neighborhood, are downright softies. While students, business professionals, and newer residents of the more gentrified urban landscape settle into their laptops and lattes at the Starbucks across the street, these ragtag throwbacks to a bygone era seek refuge in more straightforward coffee and confections. For them there is comfort in knowing everybody’s name, even if they don’t really know everybody’s business.
Superior Donuts takes its title from the time-worn Polish pastry shop owned and operated by Arthur P (Will LeBow), a reclusive pony-tailed Woodstock generation draft dodger who inherited the business from his immigrant father. Long past its sell by date, the shop provides Arthur with little income, and more often than not he gives away the few hand-made donuts he still cooks up every day. Rather, the shop provides safe haven for Arthur, the two beat cops, the Russian immigrant who owns the neighboring electronics store, and the homeless Lady who would likely be totally demented if it weren’t for the hospitality and human contact that Arthur P provides. With its torn black leather and chrome stools, industrial-strength fluorescent lighting, and dulled Formica-topped tables, Super Donuts is a ramshackle oasis for the poor, tired, and huddled masses for whom the American Dream has yet to materialize.
Enter Franco Wicks (Omar Robinson), a 20-year-old Black college student and promising writer who convinces Arthur to hire him despite his desire to host poetry slams and offer health-conscious items on the menu. Overcoming their cultural and generational differences, Arthur and Franco slowly develop mutual respect and genuine concern. As friendship of the father-son kind blossoms, each gains the courage to relinquish the past and find renewed purpose in helping each other deal with an uncertain future.
Director Spiro Veloudos has assembled a crackerjack ensemble that maneuvers through the comic and dramatic moments of Letts’ gradually unfolding plot twists with grace and pitch-perfect timing. LeBow is a deeply sympathetic aging hippie stuck in the shadow of his father’s lifelong disapproval. His slow emergence from his hermit shell is both excruciating and exalting. Robinson is a revelation as Arthur’s unlikely protégé Franco. Shifting from youthful exuberance and optimism to abject disillusionment and dejection, he commands the stage and drives the arc of the story. Together they create an emotional center to Superior Donuts that is captivating, tense and tender.
As Officer Randy Osteen, a single middle-aged woman caught between her feminine desires and her family’s long proud heritage of working “on the job,” Karen MacDonald notches yet another quirky character onto her remarkable theatrical belt. She is delightfully ill at ease when trying to entice Arthur P to call her for a date, obviously more comfortable interrogating suspects than risking personal intimacy or rejection. She turns what could be a stock character into an appealing contradiction of strength and insecurity.
Steven Barkhimer as the Russian immigrant Max Tarasov is at turns passionately proud and crudely funny. He believes fiercely in the opportunities afforded to him by American capitalism, but he isn’t afraid to dip into his old school Russian Mob bag of tricks when his – and his neighbors’ – peaceful ways of life are threatened. The most immediate and palpable danger to the Superior Donuts regulars comes in the person of Luther Flynn (Christopher James Webb), an aptly named Satan-like loan shark who, with his sociopathic sidekick Kevin Magee (Zachary Eisenstat), terrorize their victims with the very real possibility of physical harm. Both Webb and Magee menace without villainous exaggeration. Their cold, coiled demeanors lying just beneath the surface of faux-friendly facades instill far more bone-chilling fear than explicit threats ever could.
Rounding out the cast are an endearing Beth Gotha as the fragile yet philosophical homeless Lady Boyle; Steven James DeMarco as Max’s muscular but kind-hearted nephew Kiril Ivakin; and De’Lon Grant as the young Black police officer who grew up in the neighborhood and now does what he can to inspire other youths to choose positive paths. Each has fleshed out appealing characters woven seamlessly into Letts’ subtle tapestry.
Scenic designer Matthew Whiton and lighting designer Shawn Boyle have combined to make Superior Donuts a glaring anachronism in today’s franchise-friendly world. Costume designer Mallory Frers has likewise outfitted her characters to reflect the play’s clash of cultures and conflicting times.
Superior Donuts ends its run at the Lyric Stage this Saturday, February 4. For all its working class sensibilities and gruff exterior, it is the most delicate of confections. Its charming characters and celebration of hope, friendship and redemption can be savored long after the closed sign is put in the shop window.
PHOTOS BY MARK S. HOWARD: Will LeBow as Arthur P and Omar Robinson as Franco Wicks; Will LeBow; Will LeBow and Omar Robinson; Will LeBow and Karen MacDonald as Officer Randy Osteen; Omar Robinson, Zachary Eisenstat as Kevin Magee and Christopher James Webb as Luther Flynn