BWW Review: Dignity and Humanity Deliciously Discovered in Lyric Arts' SUPERIOR DONUTS
Once again, Anoka's Lyric Arts presents an area premiere for their audiences. This winter, Superior Donuts, a 2008 play written by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tracy Letts, arrived for opening weekend. Letts, an ensemble actor at Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, has recently been in the news for his role in Greta Gerwig's film, "Lady Bird," with another Steppenwolf actor, Laurie Metcalf, and newcomer Saoirse Ronan. To learn a bit about Letts, his sense of humor, and his award winning theatrical career, viewing his comedy Superior Donuts provides one perfect place to begin.
However, Director Matt McNabb has transformed Letts' play into a multi-layered drama touched with brilliant comic moments. He also assembled a a stunning cast for this contemporary play set in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. Arthur P. (Jeffery Goodson) owns one of the last privately owned donut shops in the area. To help him out after a devastating personal loss, he hires a young African American young man, Franco (Malick Ceesay), while the Starbucks across the street steals his customers. His own street neighbor next door, Max Tarasov (Peter Aitchison) pursues Arthur P. to sell his shop so Max can build a huge electronic store to rival Best Buy in Uptown. Embedded in these tales of immigrants, Polish and Russian, Letts weaves homelessness, poetry, possibilities, romance and the unfolding dreams of what living in America means.
An impressive task to take to stage, the cast carries these multiple themes with aplomb. A special chemistry develops between Arthur P. and Franco, almost similar to father and son, with the 21 year old Ceesay creating a marvelous character filled with young exuberance and possibilities. Two Chicago policeman wander in and out to uncover who originally broke into Superior Donuts, and help the pair survive. Officer Randy (Jamie White Jachimeic) and Officer James (Richard "Doc" Woods) bond with Arthur P. and Franco to create a central core to the action and comedy surrounding the donut shop.
Of special note, a homeless woman named Lady (Martha Wigmore) wanders in and out of the donut shop imparting her unique wisdom. She's a treasure in this play, filled with common humanity, despite her economic state. Wigmore gives her impressive dignity and will steal the audience's heart in the final scenes, courtesy of McNabb's direction. Two other characters, Luther (Bill Williamson) and Kevin McGee (Tyus Beeson) add their own twist to the neighborhood, and create tension between Arthur P. and Franco.
As Letts' story unravels, with too many nuances and spoilers to relate here, the audience entertains several possibilities for these characters and their personal American Dreams in the 21st century. This includes contemporary cultural gems revolving around commercialization, gentrification and immigration and how this effects the quirkily personalities inhabiting these city neighborhoods, and transcends to thousands of American neighborhoods throughout the country.
McNabb has mastered the uncanny ability to direct and mine a script---dig deep beyond the original dialogue to reach for the hidden gems of human experiences that he gives his audiences. Instead of Superior Donuts being purely a comedy, McNabb stretches the dialogue and his actors into wonderful dimensional characters filled with dignity and soul who the audience cares about. Even at almost three hours in length, the play travels quickly through an evening, entertaining and provoking the audience.
Take this opportunity to see Letts' play, currently optioned as a television sitcom, in the original format at Lyric Arts. Scenic Designer Gabriel Gomez and Fight Director Aaron Preusse add technical delights and make the donut shop retro special. Rich undertones of comedy and pathos allow the audience to simultaneously laugh and cry for these characters. The exceptional cast and extraordinary direction truly make Superior Donuts an evening to remember--a delicious cake dessert, just like a homemade donut, to chase away the winter blues.
Hans Bakery in Anoka graciously provides all the donuts for the show, which look yummy from where the audience sits. The All American dessert underscores the delicate nature of the American Dream, even when the audience may be uncomfortable with where their country remains as a democracy on any given day. Dreams in a country where individuals may still own their own donut shop, write the great American Novel or rival the growing mega retailers inhabiting neighborhoods--All possibilities that might be probabilities at any one time, and still have a chance of becoming personal truths in today's fragile world.