Detroit Explores Who Lives on the Other Side of the Fence

DetroitWhat latent dreams lurk behind well-to-do complacency? The desperation behind every neatly mowed lawn and white picket fence has been explored in all manner of media, pointing to one irrefutable conclusion – we all have hidden desires to climb out of whatever pigeonhole we’re in and explore our secrets.  As a wise man once said about suburbia, “Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone.” Such is the case with Wilbury Group’s Season opener, Detroit, written by Lisa D’Amour.

Wilbury, under the direction of Josh Short, has managed another taut production with plenty of technical bells and whistles to add to the usual fine performances. Detroit aims to put us, literally, in the backyards of two opposing, yet complementary forces: Mary and Ben, the seemingly perfect couple who have it all together and Sharon and Kenny, everyone’s charming white trash nightmare next door. Eugene McKeowen’s set design flips the Southside Cultural Center’s usual arrangement and we actually enter the space as if from inside the house. Cyrus Leddy’s opening suburban soundscape is a montage of lawnmowers and vague neighborhood drone, continually intruding and hypnotizing.

What follows is an exercise in tension and repeated patterns, all building up to a climax, if not predictable, then certainly inevitable. Melissa Penick’s Mary gets the lion’s share of the labor as she struggles to keep her façade intact while her burgeoning alcoholic fear of not being perfect bubbles to the surface. As she and Ben host the new neighbors, all seems idyllic, if not somewhat unsettling. Sharon and Kenny are a little manic, but trying hard to fit in and when the patio umbrella crashes down on Kenny (which we’ve been waiting for much like a glass precariously perched on the edge of a table), then the first of many tiny disasters ensues for each of the pair. With that first injury (and the first appearance of several bodily fluids onstage), blood is spilt, and unspoken pacts are forged allowing the two couples to haltingly share dreams and secrets. Kenny and Sharon are in recovery, working toward what Mary and Ben represent. Mary and Ben are repressed and hiding secrets of their own, so each couple gravitates toward each other’s orbit. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Each actor gets a chance to shine, especially Penick, whose breakdowns and recovery reach the edge of too far until she skillfully pulls back at just the right moment. Clara Weishahn’s Sharon is a grubby angel, filled with equal parts innocence and sexual abandon, like a college freshman at Burning Man. Mary and Sharon’s ebb and flow carry the spirit of the play, as truths spill forth and tears are shed. It is the husbands, Ben (played with a nerdy restraint by David Rabinow) and Kenny (David Tessier, channeling Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers) who must struggle to relate and whose candor is far from forthcoming. It is when the couples are together, particularly in a wonderful and chaotic dinner scene that is an exercise in mania. Everyone is trying too hard to be happy and the recovery ethos of “fake it ‘til you make it” gives these scenes a tension bordering on the surreal. Indeed, each character is overtly challenged to determine dreams from reality. The set, the costumes, the sounds (and smells) of the dueling barbecues all serve to form an overall picture of hyper-reality. Even when the recovering addict Kenny dismisses drinking a Bud Light (“water’s ok”), we laugh, but for a second, we wonder if he’s right.

As Ben and Mary’s layers peel away, Kenny and Sharon seem normal in comparison. The sketchy couple pulls Ben and Mary out of their doldrums and forces them to confront their marriage, their selves and their neighbors in a very visceral fashion. However, at times, each performer here is guilty of playing the end and we know that disaster is just around the corner. When the inevitable occurs, there is catharsis, but, also an unfortunate denouement that seems tacked on and serves to undercut the richness of the story. This may be a play about the demise of true community and the sense of “neighborhood” that is all too lacking these days, but Detroit works best when we intuit the larger themes and try to figure out if we’re more Kenny or Sharon. The usually stalwart Richard Noble is underused here as the “real” neighbor who shuffles through the rubble like the old man from Logan’s Run to tell us what’s what, in case we couldn’t figure it out for ourselves. Detroit is ultimately about truth, not borrowing sugar, but when we can’t get the former, sometimes a spoonful of the latter will help us get through the day.

For all its fine performances, this is a heavily technical production, with excellently realized special effects by Mike Commendatore and Adam O’Brien and the aforementioned sound design by Leddy. There are grills that smoke and light up, food that sizzles and houses that have a life of their own. Detroit could play well without these devices, but Wilbury continues to set the bar high for its production values and serves as another example of a smaller RI theater hitting all the right notes.

Detroit runs September 19, 2013 to October 5, 2013, with performances Thursday thru Saturday
at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15-$20 and are available at (401) 400-7100 or online at www.thewilburygroup.org.

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