Stage Door Review

Detroit

Saturday, July 23, 2022

✭✭✭✭

by Lisa D’Amour, directed by Jill Harper

Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth Avenue, Toronto

July 10-August 7, 2022

Sharon: “Does anyone talk to their neighbors anymore?”

Steppenwolf gave Lisa D’Amour’s play Detroit its world premiere in 2010. Yet, on the basis of the current Coal Mine Theatre’s gripping production, the play feels like it was written yesterday. D’Amour had in mind the US financial crisis and the effects of Hurricane Katrina, but playwrights often capture more than they intend. To an audience in 2022 still experiencing the effects of a global pandemic, Detroit seems to be primarily a tale about isolation and attempts at connection. Jill Harper certainly directed the play that way and the actors certainly emphasize that aspect of the text. In a way that is as funny as it is frightening, D’Amour suggests we may have reached a point where people can no longer connect in a productive way.

Though the play is called Detroit, D’Amour has said that she used the name as shorthand for any American city that has become known for its decline. As D’Amour explains the location in her notes, “We are in a ‘first ring’ suburb outside of a midsize American city. These are the suburbs that comprise the first ‘ring’ of houses outside of the city proper. They were built in the late 1950s, smaller houses of outdated design. The kind of house many today would consider a ‘starter house’”.

Coal Mine has taken on several plays with complex set requirements like Hand to God in 2019 or The Nether in 2018 that one would not think could work in the small space of the Coal Mine Theatre. Set designers cleverly overcame those challenges, but in Detroit D’Amour asks for two back yards on stage side by side, a request that demands space the Coal Mine doesn’t have. Designer Ken MacDonald has miniaturized the two back yards as much as possible but still the majority of the audience has to look at the set end on rather than head on as D’Amour imagines. The actors have learned how to move about the set nimbly but their apparent ease doesn’t disguise how cramped the set appears.

The action begins innocently enough. Ben (Sergio Di Zio) and Mary (Diana Bentley) have invited their new next door neighbours Kenny (Craig Lauzon) and Sharon (Louise Lambert) over for a backyard barbecue. Ben has been laid off from his job as a bank loan officer and is now spending his time building an internet website offering financial advice. Mary is a paralegal at a small-sized law firm. 

Kenny says that he and Sharon are renting the house next door that belonged to his aunt but they haven’t fully moved in yet. Designer Melanie McNeill makes clear from the cheap-looking clothing he gives Kenny and Sharon, a sharp contrast with the tidy preppie clothes Ben and Mary wear, that Kenny and Sharon are not as affluent as Ben and Mary and may indeed be downright cash poor. Soon we discover that Kenny works as a warehouse manager and Sharon works as a customer service representative in a phone bank. This difference in social class doesn’t faze Ben and Mary much. What does give them pause momentarily is the fact that both Kenny and Sharon are fresh out of rehab for major substance abuse. In fact, the couple met in rehab.

Good liberals as Ben and Mary conceive themselves to be, they believe in giving people second chances and think that Kenny and Sharon have worked hard to get clean. In fact, Sharon gets emotional just thinking about how badly she and Kenny have been treated in the past: “We’ve lived in a lot of places, and never, never did the neighbors give us the time of day”. This, of course, only makes Ben and Mary feel more committed to ignoring the couple’s past.

Because Sharon has felt comfortable enough with her and Ben to break down and cry, Mary visits Sharon late at night to have a cry. Here in Scene 2 we discover that all is not well. Mary is drunk, apparently a frequent occurrence, and tells Sharon that she doesn’t understand Ben. Mary thinks he may not actually be doing anything on his website, but when she brings up the subject with him he gets angry.

For the next six scenes we witness the strange evolution of the relationship between the two couples and the simultaneous devolution of Ben and Mary. Though Ben and Mary are financially better off and better educated and though they find out increasingly worrying facts about the lives of Kenny and Sharon, Ben and Mary become increasingly dependent on Kenny and Sharon for company and even guidance.

Gradually we see that although Ben and Mary have more and know more, they are not happy, while Kenny and Sharon, who have less and only street smarts, do seems to be happy. If Kenny and Sharon once depended on drugs to escape reality, Ben and Mary have their own methods of escape.

D’Amour demonstrates that Sharon’s clichéd rehab mantra of “Live in the moment”, which so many people like Ben and Mary take as something positive, has a terrible, sinister side. Ben’s financial planning is a job focussed on the future and Mary’s paralegal activities focus on past events. Sharon and Kenny’s “Live in the moment” philosophy seems liberating to Ben and Mary, while to Kenny and Sharon it represents a liberation from self-control and responsibility. This situation ultimately leads to a devastating finale.

Jill Harper lends the action a growing sense of dread. Her pacing is steady but would be more unrelenting if D’Amour’s play did not require complicated set clean-ups after so many scenes. The quartet of principal actors work together as a tightly knit ensemble and it is hard to see how their work could be bettered.

Sergio Di Zio plays Ben as a sensitive, complex man who wishes to appear nonchalant but is in fact always on his guard. Ben seems not to look at any of the three other characters without assessing the implications of what they have said or done. What it is that is eating away at him is not clear until the penultimate scene when he seems positively ecstatic finally to get his secret out in the open.

Diana Bentley and Di Zio maintain a nice tension between Mary and Ben that only intensifies as the action progresses. We may have thought that Mary’s drunkenness in Scene 2 was an anomalous occurrence, but as the action continues we discover that Mary should be classed as an alcoholic. Bentley carefully details how Mary’s mental state deteriorates throughout the show, principally in how Mary increasing looks on Sharon as a role model despite growing doubts whether Kenny and Sharon actually do anything or even tell the truth about themselves.

Craig Lauzon gives a superb performance as Kenny. From the very beginning he shows Kenny as a man who is always playing a role. When Kenny and Sharon visit Ben and Mary for their first barbecue, Lauzon presents Kenny acting the part of a normal working class guy who has been through but overcome bad times in the past. Like Di Zio’s Ben, Lauzon’s Kenny also seems to be assessing the implications of what the other characters say or do. Lauzon gives Kenny a strange little laugh at what people say that is so ambiguous we can’t tell whether it signifies amusement or derision. As the action progresses Kenny’s disdain of Ben and Mary increases as if experience has taught him to see through privileged people’s superficial modes of behaviour to locate their worst self underneath.

Louise Lambert is a treasure as Sharon. Lambert frequently has Sharon’s lively enthusiasm shade into uncomfortable unhingedness so that we don’t really know how much control she has over herself. Her instant acceptance of Mary’s loony proposal to go on a camping trip to get back to nature or her instant inspiration to hold a barbecue for Ben and Mary make Sharon look like someone who speaks before she thinks. And when she thinks, Sharon seems unable to come up with anything but rehab self-betterment clichés. Despite all this, Lambert demonstrates that Sharon has a strong intuitive sense and would like to be a normal, good person if fate would allow it. Yet, Lambert also conveys through Sharon’s manner of speech and behaviour that she is fated not to succeed, a fear that seems to motivate her manic energy.

Anyone who looks at the programme or Coal Mine website before the show will know that there is a fifth character in the play – Frank, played by the redoubtable Eric Peterson. Frank is old enough to be the grandfather of any of the other four characters. D’Amour gives him the role of placing the action in context. Contrary to what we might expect, Frank paints an idyllic portrait of the Bright Houses suburb where the action takes place. This first suburb of the unnamed mid-sized city offered people the chance to have a free-standing home and more fresh air than they could ever have in the city. The suburb offered weekly neighbourhood social gatherings and people were friendlier not living on top of each other but satisfied in having space around them that was their own.

Frank mentions the fact that buyers had the choice of five different styles of home to choose from and never suggests that this “choice” is really a symptom of social conformism. Is the past as Frank portrays it a product of age gilding old memories or was there suburban life really as quasi-paradisal as Frank paints it? As directed by Harper, Peterson enters a kind of reverie of remembered happiness when recalling what the suburb used to be like and gives no hint that Frank’s imagination is embellishing the past.

Since Frank’s appearance acts as a coda to the main action of the play, this picture of a previous golden age raises a number of questions that D’Amour does not answer. Classic American dramas like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) or Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956) portray the American Dream as a falsehood and those who believe in as dupes who numb their disillusionment with alcohol, drugs or sex.

In Detroit D’Amour shows us that all four main characters have numbed or are numbing the pain of reality with alcohol, drugs or modern technology. What D’Amour fails to show is how the idyll of the suburb as Frank depicts it becomes the wasteland as her two couples experience it. What changed? Were people in 1950s really friendlier and more neighbourly than they are today, or were suburbanites inherently happier because they knew they lived in a suburb that selected for only the same type of person?

Failing to tell us how the suburb of Frank’s past became the nightmare of Ben and Mary’s present can be viewed either as a flaw in D’Amour’s play or as a question that D’Amour deliberately puts to the audience. D’Amour’s play starts out with the idea that no one is neighbourly anymore because no one can trust anyone. The characters decry this view and try to prove it false, but wind up proving that it’s dangerous to trust one’s neighbours. D’Amour gives this ironic parable another twist with her coda that asks more questions than it answers.

People may find D’Amour’s approach disconcerting but that may actually be her goal. In any case, Detroit is a tightly wound time-bomb of a play that we simply can’t look away from.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Diana Bentley as Mary, Louise Lambert as Sharon, Craig Lauzon as Kenny and Sergio Di Zio as Ben; Louise Lambert as Sharon and Diana Bentley as Mary; Craig Lauzon as Kenny and Sergio Di Zio as Ben; Eric Peterson as Frank. © 2022 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit www.coalminetheatre.com.