BWW Reviews: The Road to Hell Begins with a Backyard Barbecue in DETROIT at Portland Playhouse
The city of Fraser, Michigan, sits about five miles north of the Detroit city limits. In 1964, when my parents chose to buy a house there, the population was about 2,000 and there were still working farms within its borders. A few years later, as the city of Detroit exploded, working-class white people fled north to Macomb County to escape. By the time I graduated high school in 1980, the high school alone had 2,500 students and every square inch of Fraser had been paved and developed. It was still a quaint town - no fast-food restaurants, no chain stores - but much more of a suburb than before. However, on my last visit in 1999, the population had begun to drop, low-end chain stores had taken over, and the town center looked shabby. People were fleeing for the shiny new planned communities further north in Sterling Heights and Shelby Township. Checking out Fraser on Google Earth recently only depressed me further.
Lisa D'Amour's play Detroit does not specifically take place in Michigan, but everything about it reminded me of my hometown. Daniel Meeker's stunning set presents us with a couple of middle-class suburban patios, shabby around The Edges, with worn paint, cheap outdoor furniture, and stained concrete. There's even real grass on the stage - a nice touch that adds to the truth of what's about to happen.
In the house at right are Ben and Mary, who've lived in the neighborhood for a while. Ben's laid off from his job in the banking industry (the play takes place in 2009) and Mary is a paralegal. They seem content, the kind of suburban couple you'd expect to see in a sitcom. In the house at left are Kenny and Sharon, who are fresh out of rehab, working menial jobs and living in Kenny's aunt's house. Sharon is covered with tattoos and prone to spontaneous bursts of tears and obscenity, while Kenny seems to be trying hard to be normal.
The two couples strike up an awkward friendship, which leads to the women plotting a camping trip while the men consider a boys' night out to a strip club. Kenny and Sharon don't seem all that committed to their sobriety, and Ben doesn't seem to be putting in all that much effort toward the consulting business he wants to start. Both couples are hurting financially, yet Mary brings home fancy appetizers for a backyard barbecue. Eventually the partying gets more intense, and both couples' dreams fall apart.
Clearly the play is meant as a depiction of how the recent economic downturn has affected the average American family. The gradual descent that Ben and Mary endure, with Kenny and Sharon's assistance, corresponds to the hell that many families have endured in recent years - unemployment, foreclosure, embarrassment, and loss of retirement funds and other savings due to mismanagement. We've all been touched by it. Titling the play Detroit shows how far D'Amour thinks we've fallen; what is Detroit, after all, but a symbol of how things have gone wrong?
The play isn't an economic treatise, however. It's a funny and vital play that keeps us entertained even as we identify with the characters' struggles. Director Brian Weaver has kept the play moving, and especially in the early scenes he brings out the humor. The play's first scene plays almost like a sitcom pilot - Roseanne redux - until Sharon drops an F-bomb and the darker truths begin to peek out. There are laughs throughout the play, and even as the characters descend into hell, they do so in a humorous way.
The cast is uniformly terrific. Jason Rouse as Ben and Brooke Totman as Mary have extensive backgrounds in comedy, and both use their skill to make the couple likable and "average" at the beginning of the play, but as the scenes go on they find the darker notes and show us what's underneath the laughs. Victor Mack is stealthily charming as Kenny, who comes across as the sanest, most easygoing of the characters until Act Two, when we start to see his demons. Kelly Tallent gives the most deceptive performance as Sharon, who seems like a flake at first but has a big heart, and some big issues to match. The four of them make a great team, illuminating the differences and similarities between the two couples, and if Detroit were a TV show, I'd want to see more episodes immediately.
The four leads are joined in the last scene by Blaine Palmer in the small but pivotal role of Frank, a former resident of the neighborhood who reminds us what the suburbs meant to people like my parents. He remembers when the subdivision was built and what an optimistic time that was. For the residents of Detroit (the city) and Detroit (the play)...that time is long gone. For those of us who get to see this play, at least we have a document of how it changed and what's become of the places we came from.