Encore Michigan

Downtown story shines with hometown view

Review January 12, 2013 Encore Staff

By Carolyn Hayes Harmer

The hotly anticipated Michigan premiere of playwright Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” has been the arguable crown of Hilberry Theatre’s 50th season. Bringing a Pulitzer Prize-finalist text to its namesake city for the first time comes with high expectations that hinge on doing justice to a city so thoroughly ridiculed, defamed, and – per its fierce advocates – misunderstood by the outside world. Here, under the direction of Lavinia Hart and bolstered by stellar designs and complex ensemble performances, this captivating production skillfully tells its encapsulated tragicomic story while also exploring representations of the city from without and within.

In a residential neighborhood just outside Downtown Detroit, longtime residents Ben and Mary (Joe Plambeck and Vanessa Sawson) welcome new neighbors Kenny and Sharon (David Sterritt and Danielle Cochrane) with sizzling steaks and inquisitive hospitality. The play exclusively traces the couples’ backyard friendship, which allows information to be released and withheld from the audience exactly as carefully as the characters do with each other. It’s a clean slate befitting the addicts in recovery, turning over a new leaf together, and the double-income couple recast on the fly as a single paycheck plus a budding Web entrepreneur. D’Amour lays out meticulous, incremental treads, and the production just as carefully follows, hiding the magnitude of the characters’ discoveries and relationship advances in the stumbling comedy of everyday conversation.

The proceedings are marked by prickling humor and barely perceptible foreboding that go hand in hand – repeated attempts to work a defective patio umbrella are either amusingly precarious or a dark symbol of making do when everything’s a little broken. Hart gamely dives into the script’s tempting layers, employing rampant physical humor while also gorging on subtext, and her cast more than ably follows through.

Opposite Plambeck’s effusive humor and warmly guileless outbursts, the tightly wound Sawson keeps up appearances, then holds forth in intoxicated trances. Although Sterritt stays pointed toward the straight and narrow with visible exertion, he also embraces Kenny’s irrationality with charming aplomb. The whirling, uninhibited Cochrane takes evident joy in demonstrating there’s no emotion she can’t grab onto and ride to the hilt.

The individual portraits are critical, but the ensemble work is what sells this subtle text, as the characters effortlessly trade beats of desperation and strength while the details of their lives unfold and spill over, each into the other. Themes of neighborly conduct and the closeness born of proximity are explored in fascinating depth, reinforced by a brief, wizened appearance by Edmund Alyn Jones.

D’Amour has attested that Detroit’s influence on the play is largely nominal; other than some peppered specificity, this could be any adjoining yard in any urban setting rebelling against decline. In this light, the question of how a native Detroit company appropriates an outsider’s work is worth examining, and the Hilberry design team answers with intrigue. Rather than submit to the potential scrutiny of attempted verisimilitude, the surroundings are loaded with approximations of the city, such as scenic designer Pegi Marshall-Amundsen’s graffiti-inspired blighted skyline. The urge to {ITAL claim} Detroit without being {ITAL of} Detroit is also consciously addressed, most notably by designer Samuel G. Byers’ auditory cocktail of neighborhood sounds, electronic beats, and slyly deliberate tunes burbling tepidly from summer-barbecue speakers.

Yet at the same time, commingling details feel exactly on point, from Max Amitin’s abundance of edible props to costumer John D. Woodland’s pairing of tattoos and weathered Tigers gear. At times, the distinctiveness can be downright startling, as when lighting designer Heather DeFauw taps directly into an iconic bit of imagery. As a whole, the scheme speaks intelligently to the fractious continuum of Detroit’s perception by the uninformed masses compared with the realities known to its residents and devotees. The concept even extends to the theater lobby, where the Detroit Institute of Arts has installed a digital display entitled “Reveal Your Detroit,” in which photographs by professional and amateur contributors exhibit hundreds of ways to present and represent the city in all its facets.

Importantly, it’s worth noting that good watching is not always easy watching: There is more strong language and vulgarity here than in your typical Hilberry production, and viewers should prepare their brains and bladders for two hours of strict attention without an intermission. However, as in the wildly hilarious scene in which all of the, uh, {ITAL profanity} hits all of the fans, or in the darkly comic ravages of exaltation that too easily mistake recklessness for catharsis, the rewards are ample.

In all, Hart and company have taken a very young play from parts beyond, with all its attendant baggage, and brought it home in a wholly satisfying manner. Freed of embodying the absolute truth of a long-maligned city, the production is able to thrive as a compelling story shot through with familiarity, while also presenting a thoughtful exercise in interpretation and ownership. In embracing the conscious conundrum between authenticity and representation, this “Detroit” keeps the viewer mindful that theater is an art form, and this particular art is the stuff of masters.