Coal Mine Theatre/Detroit, written by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Jill Harper, Coal Mine Theatre, July 8 to Aug. 7. Tickets here.
The first thing you should know about the play Detroit is that it is not actually about Detroit. Rather, 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.
Her 2010 play is set in what is called “an inner-ring” suburb — those planned communities just beyond a big city, which represent the American Dream writ large — in other words, your own home and garden in a quiet neighbourhood with a low crime rate and good schools.
This particular collection of houses is called Bright, and all the streets have names pertaining to bright and light in some way, which is part of the irony and/or satire that D’Amour is presenting 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 at a bank. Nonetheless, right from the start, we learn that things are not going well. Mary suffers from acute anxiety, and Ben was downsized out of his job.
D’Amour sets up her contrasting couple in Sharon (Lisa Lambert) and Kenny (Craig Lauzon) who move in next door, and who are invited by Mary and Ben to a neighbourly backyard BBQ.
There we learn that Sharon and Kenny met at rehab for drug abuse, that they are mostly unemployed, and that they love a good time. In fact, over the course of the play, the couple begins to exert a certain allure on Mary and Ben. In other words, the Bright neighbourhood has suddenly begun to get dangerous.
D’Amour has a lot to say, and so the play rambles all over, with tangents heading off in all directions. Towards the end, she slips into a surreal world that has a touch of magic realism. Taking off into absurdity does rather suit her theme of dislocation, of losing centre, of having to cope with a world turned upside down, but it does impact the structure of the play, for me, in a slightly negative fashion.
To compound the feeling of “I will go anywhere my thoughts take me and damn dramaturgy” on the part of the playwright, just before the end, she introduces a fifth character, Frank, played by the great Eric Peterson. At this point, the play takes a sharp 90-degree turn away from our two couples, while Frank serves as a reminder of what the American Dream once was.
While I’m not taking anything away from playwright D’Amour and her intentions, I did find that the play loses focus about three-quarters of the way through, to become a scattergun, with metaphors and symbols piling up on each other. (I’m being deliberately vague here, so as not to give anything away.)
Nonetheless, Detroit is a multi-award-winning, multi-nominated play that has been rewarded for its depth and breadth of exploration, and I do concur that D’Amour has been ambitious, maybe too much so, in putting a lot of themes under the Detroit hat.
The acting, however, is superb, which means 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 is almost like a naïve, child-like figure who talks a mile a minute. (Special kudos to Lambert, who picked up the role at the last minute.)
From these first impressions, comes a cascade of twists and turns of character development overseen by director Jill Harper who keeps things under firm control. I should add that Peterson gives a particularly poignant performance as Frank.
If I have one small problem, it is with Ken MacDonald’s set. You never know where the audience seating is going to be when you go to Coal Mine, and for this play, the chairs are banked at either end, with a single row of chairs along the wall, opposite the long set showing both backyards, with sliding doors into the houses. Sadly, it seemed flimsy and creaky, and not well-constructed to me, although Kimberly Purtell’s lighting is certainly eye-catching.
Suffice it to say, Detroit joins a long list of provocative Coal Mine plays of substance. We expect nothing less from them, and while Detroit isn’t perfect, it sure is interesting in terms of characters, relationships and plot twists.
And one final note. Make sure you have dinner before going to Detroit because you will be assaulted by the hunger-inducing, appetizing smell of steaks and hamburgers on the BBQ.
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