Sunday, April 26, 2015

Dobama’s SUPERIOR DONUTS, dessert for both the laugher and the thinker

Tracy Letts, the author of SUPERIOR DONUTS, now on stage at Dobama, is an accomplished playwright, actor, and screenwriter.  He was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his play AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY.  He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of George in the recent Broadway revival of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?.  He wrote screen adaptations for his plays:  BUG and KILLER JOE, as well as AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY and has been nominated for two Screen Actors Guild Awards for his portrayal of Andrew Lockhart in Showtime’s HOMELAND.

Much like his writing heroes, Tennessee Williams and William Falkner, his characters struggle with moral and spiritual problems set in a format of the well structured play.

Considered one of modern America’s great playwrights, Letts writes works which are multi-leveled.  For those seeking laughs, he presents a story filled with laughter.  These viewers can enjoy themselves and leave as fulfilled audience members.

For those who like to dig beyond the surface, they can find a vivid social conscience being exposed.  He often writes of the present and past ills of society.  SUPERIOR DONUTS exposes the underbelly of such issues as the questionable purpose of the Vietnamese war, the motivations of the draft-dodgers of the era, outward and inward prejudice against Blacks, the feeling of African Americans for the white majority, the difficulty of the immigrant experience, and the plight of the homeless.  

SUPERIOR DONUTS centers on Arthur Przybyszewski, a second generation Pole, whose father opened what is now one of the last donut shops in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.  The shop barely has any customers, which is fine with Arthur, who prefers to hide in silence, sharing little with those who come into the bakery.

A homeless woman, Lady, comes in daily for her “deserved” donuts for her ability to sense happenings and act as an oracle.  The police stop for their coffee and snack.  Max, the Russian owner of the adjacent electronics store, stops regularly to try and convince Arthur to sell his property so Max can expand. 

Arthur’s world is interrupted by the entrance of Franco, a black teen, who can hardly contain his enthusiasm and creativity as he talks the donut man into hiring him.  Hidden in Franco’s schemes is a dark secret which eventually changes both the youth’s and Arthur’s lives.

Max leads us through the tale by acting much like the chorus in a Greek play, using monologues to comment on what has just happened and foreshadow what is to come.

Comments such as “Is anyone paying attention in America?” is an invitation to the audience to be stimulated to think and reflect on what they are seeing on stage and how they are living their lives. 

The Dobama production is well formed by director Nathan Motta’s keen understanding of the levels of Letts’ writing.  The laughs are all there, but so are the sociological underpinnings.  He allows the audience to react on their own levels, but makes sure that both the enjoyers and the thinkers can satisfy their needs.

The role of Arthur seems written specifically for Joel Hammer.  Hammer is Arthur, Arthur is Joel.  The lines flow effortlessly from Hammer.  The contained feelings, the stifled emotions, the fear of being hurt once again, are all present in this well textured performance.

Robert Hunter bursts onto the stage as Franco, keeps the momentum going and makes a fine transition as the role takes a sharp emotional turn.  He and Hammer play off each other.  No “acting” here.  He reacts to the lines, the feelings, and the implications.   Hunter has a fine sense of comic timing, while also building dramatic intensity.  

Mary Jane Nottage, with matted red hair, eyes flashing, and confused facial expression, nails the role of Lady.  Her finest moment is near the end of the play.  With tears flowing, she displays the character’s awareness of what is to come of her failed life, as she wanders out of the donut shop, her few possessions in plastic bags.  (Note:  The youthful looking Nottage is the only actress still performing on the Dobama stage from the earliest era of the company.  She appeared  in the company’s third show, some fifty years ago.

On opening night, Alan Byrne took the stage to perform the role of Max with less than a week of rehearsal.  Brian Zoldessy was to play the role, but became ill and had to be replaced.  Byrne, complete with a fine Russian-American accent and some Russian dialogue, masterfully performed the role with great comic timing, walking the fine line between comedy and farce with the ease of a high wire artist.

Amy Fritsche and LaShawn Little, portraying Chicago’s finest, were both excellent in developing strong supporting characters.

Aaron Benson designed an authentic worn-out donut shop, complete with era-correct appliances and a vintage cash register.  The ever present display and replacement of donuts added to the required authenticity.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: SUPERIOR DONUTS is a well written, well directed, well acted play.  It is a play that will delight both the theatre-goer who desires theatre of entertainment, as well as the audience member wanting to probe into the underpinnings of a play with a social message.  Dobama ends its 2014-2015 season with another fine season, their first as a full-time Equity House and the area’s only full- time Small Professional Theatre. 

SUPERIOR DONUTS runs through May 24, 2015 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.