The Hilberry rocked its first new play of 2013 with the Michigan Premiere of “Detroit” by award-winning playwright Lisa D’Amour. It’s directed by Lavinia Hart, who has a sixth sense when it comes to tricky comedies, and this production walks that taut, dark line toward unpredictable hilarity.
This production is set in a neighborhood just outside the downtown Detroit area. By D’Amour’s own admission, the play could really be set in almost any mid-sized American city, out on edge of the wannabee-suburbs. But this Hilberry production, only the fourth in the play’s young history, truly pays homage to our hometown. It’s all there in the smart scenic design (Pegi Marshall-Amundsen), the splendid sound design (Samuel G. Byers) and even the costumes (John D. Woodland), which include Tigers T-shirts and the requisite Eminem "wife-beater" undershirt.
“The play is a Detroit story,” says Hart. “We’re a city bereft of revenue, neighborhoods, and opportunity. But Detroiters are survivors and their sense of humor is gritty and wry. Even the expression ‘that’s another Detroit story’ is usually accompanied with the laughter that comes of immediate recognition – personal knowledge of the pain and irony of a particular loss.”
The story starts out simply enough, at the backyard barbeque of Mary and Ben, who are hosting their new neighbors, Sharon and Kenny. The entire play consists of a series of vignettes, run without intermission, and all staged in the couples’ adjoining backyards. As Mary and Ben learn more about their neighbors, they also discover more about themselves – more, perhaps, than anyone really wanted to know.
Early in the show, Mary ridicules Ben for following a TV show about NASCAR, even though he doesn’t care for the actual NASCAR races. It made us realize that this play holds some of the same fascination as a race at Talladega – watching everything run smoothly lap after lap, faster and faster, until you feel certain that it is unsustainable. A big pile up is imminent. And that’s what this play feels like. And so we sit there, spellbound, laughing at the bizarre dialog, but almost afraid to blink.
The brilliant cast makes this eccentric comedy work. Vanessa Sawson, as Mary, is the sweet-tempered wife and good neighbor who can barely contain the scary person who appears whenever she has too much to drink. Which seems to happen frequently. Joe Plambeck is delightful as her husband, a laid-off financial planner with his own well hidden, carefully hewn hopes and dreams. Danielle Cochrane is a live wire as Sharon, the emotional roller-coaster who seems to bring out the best and the worst in everybody. And David Sterritt, as her husband Kenny, conveys a white-trash sensibility that is outrageous precisely because it feels so authentic. We may not have a friend like this guy, but we have all seen him at a Kid Rock concert. Rounding out the cast is the charming Edmund Alyn Jones, who appears in the final scene as Frank, an older man who grew up in the neighborhood and recalls its glory days.
Although the play itself is a metaphor for the crumbling Middle Class American Dream, it leaves us with a hopeful note. With wreckage comes renewal; with ashes, the reborn Phoenix.
“Detroit” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and we are lucky that the author deliberately chose to stage a production here in its eponymous hometown. It premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago in 2010, where it was directed by Austin Pendleton. The play was later staged in London and Off-Broadway. If you care anything for the theatre, make a point of seeing “Detroit” here, because it’s not often we get bragging rights. And this production is worth bragging about.
As part of the "Detroit" celebration, the Hilberry Theatre is collaborating with community organizations and local businesses by featuring a special photography exhibit in cooperation with the Detroit Institute of Arts. The display, entitled “Reveal Your Detroit,” showcases a broad cross-section of images that capture the city’s gritty, sublime and unique character.
“Detroit” will run in repertory from January 11 through April 5, 2013. Playwright Lisa D’Amour will be visiting Wayne State University to participate in post-show talkbacks on January 31 and February 1, 2013. Partnerships have also been established with local organizations that will participate in three special community oriented post-show talkbacks: Detroit Works Project Long Term Planning will participate on January 26; Midtown Detroit, Inc. on March 2; and Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation on March 23.
Individual tickets for “Detroit” range from $12-$30 and are available by calling the Hilberry Theatre Box Office at (313) 577-2972, purchasing tickets online, or by visiting the Wayne State University Theatre Box Office at 4743 Cass Avenue on the corner of Hancock.