Chicago is a multicultural melting pot of millions, a sophisticated metropolis without all the media madness of L.A. or New York. It's a city where the challenges of urban living and severe winter weather spawn a gritty realism in its artists, whether in music, comedy or theater.
Playwright/actor Tracy Letts has fit neatly into the Chicago scene. He's a native Oklahoman who since 1985 has found a home in the Windy City, most notably as a member of the famed Steppenwolf Theatre. Letts won a Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for August: Osage County, which premiered in Chicago in 2007. His next play, Superior Donuts, debuted the following year, and Tennessee Repertory Theatre opened the regional premiere on Saturday night.
If the TV show Cheers had been set in a doughnut shop in Chicago, it might look something like Superior Donuts — there's a familiar cast of friendly locals who come and go, and the show's humor emanates naturally from its characters. Thankfully, the play is much more than a sitcom episode, and in some ways this opus might be Letts' love letter to an adopted city. Within its own narrow universe, it manages to entertain epic human concerns and encompass historic American ideas, even as its rather ordinary dramatis personae emerge as lovable unsung heroes.
Arthur Przybyszewski is getting on. Nearing 60, he owns an aging family doughnut shop under the "L" train in the sketchy Uptown neighborhood on the North Side. At curtain's rise, his place of business has been trashed, and the cops are trying to figure out whodunit.
A few local types come and go while the police go about their business, but the play doesn't really launch seriously until a young African-American man, Franco, arrives seeking a job. A writer desiring that his dreams be not deferred, Franco expresses his vision for the doughnut shop's upgrade to a Wi-Fi hipster hangout for poetry slams. ("Poets can't pay the rent," he says, "but they drink coffee like a motherfucker!")
Arthur plans no makeover for the joint, but after a lively discussion about black poets, Franco gets the job, and all seems well between the two.
Later, things get tense when a couple of quietly menacing men enter looking for Franco, who it turns out owes gamblers $16,000. From there to the play's satisfying ending — and through some vividly unsettling events — Arthur takes stock of his life, stands up for his young friend, and together with the doughnut shop regulars, fends off the bad guys.
Director Lauren Shouse has staged this engaging piece with a confidently rugged energy. The sole exception is an extended Act 2 fight scene that aims for reality but hits the mark only occasionally (and veers unintentionally close to the Three Stooges at times). No matter. The real strengths here are the roles and the actors who play them, and Shouse shepherds her cast with uniformly successful results.
Brian Webb Russell is Arthur. He relates his backstory in asides to the audience during brief hiatuses from the action. We learn about his experiences growing up Polish in the Northwest Side's Jefferson Park area, the political riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention, and finally the anti-Vietnam War movement, which inspired Arthur to become a draft dodger, move to Toronto, then later return to the Windy City courtesy of President Jimmy Carter's 1977 amnesty deal.
Russell sensitively evokes Arthur's feelings about his unresolved personal past, when he's not grappling with other big-picture regrets. In his very fine performance, he speaks eloquently for those burdened by the feeling of failure but still buoyed by the possibility for hope.
The supporting players are terrific, starting with Brandon Hirsch as Franco, whose youthful enthusiasm draws laughter early, and whose desperate situation later earns our sympathy. Shelean Newman finds authenticity in her portrayal of the lady cop with a romantic eye on Arthur, while Jon Royal, as her on-the-beat partner, equals her otherwise world-weary attitude.
Henry Haggard is fine as Max, the aggressive, blustering Russian, and Jeremy Childs' late-arriving cameo as Max's physically imposing nephew maximizes the brief role and gets some chuckles. David Compton and Joseph Robinson are sufficiently intimidating as the two-bit thugs. Elizabeth Davidson's performance as the homeless Lady Boyle is charming, poignant and graciously understated.
Gary Hoff's scenic design includes a corrugated shop sign that functions as a hauntingly accurate evocation of Uptown's downscale chic, and Trish Clark's costumes are Windy City scruffy.
Viewers should be warned that the play deals with mature themes. Some of Letts' language is strong — like the black coffee served in the diner — and his lead character smokes pot during his reminiscences (as any unreconstructed hippie might). Additionally, there is some brutal imagery. But Superior Donuts is a worthy excursion through a big city's richness, and a thoughtful examination of the disappointments that can befall those banking on long-shot dreams.
The Rep closes the current season April 28 through May 19 with the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musical Little Shop of Horrors, featuring Patrick Waller, Martha Wilkinson and Bakari King.
The company also presented an opening night sneak peek at the upcoming 2012-13 season. As announced by artistic director René Copeland, the mainstage lineup will feature Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, a Pulitzer Prize and Olivier Award winner that puts a daring comedic spin on Lorraine Hansberry's landmark 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun. More classic fare includes a stage adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the popular Kander/Ebb musical Cabaret. Finally, there's Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still, which tells the story of a couple traumatized by the Iraq War: She is a photographer, he a globetrotting journalist who returned to the States just prior to the car-bomb explosion that almost killed her.
Specific production dates will be announced later.
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