Review: Portland Playhouse's 'Detroit'

Portland Playhouse's production of Lisa D'Amour's recessionary tale is a well-acted and impressively designed show. Thru Nov 3

By Jonathan Frochtzwajg October 8, 2013

Brooke Totman and Kelly Tallent

Image: Brud Giles

The place where Detroit takes place is “not necessarily Detroit,” playwright Lisa D'Amour writes in the Pulitzer-finalist, Obie-winning play's script. Indeed, as the program for Portland Playhouse's new production infers, the midsize city in which D'Amour sets her story could even be Portland. Two aspects of Detroit's setting, however, are unambiguous: this is America, after the financial crisis. It is a place where a city that was once synonymous with middle-class prosperity can be forced to declare bankruptcy. It's a place where a home upon a foundation can turn out to be a castle in the sky. It's a place where the American Dream and American dereliction can be separated by something as thin and unsubstantial as a property line.

Directed for Portland Playhouse by artistic director Brian Weaver, Detroit is essentially about a couple getting the lay of this new land—the hard way. Ben (Jason Rouse) and Mary (Brooke Totman) have built themselves a middle-class life, complete with a mortgaged house with a sticky sliding door in a down-at-the-heel suburb. All that has seemed more precarious, though, since Ben got laid off from his job as a bank loan officer. Though he plans to launch a web-based financial-counseling business before his severance runs out, neither he nor Mary seems very confident in the plan; in fact, Mary's bourgeois face-forward can hardly mask her anxiety over the couple's financial security.

Perhaps to divert herself, Mary invites a couple that has just moved in next door, Sharon (Kelly Tallent) and Kenny (Victor Mack), to dinner. Over barbecue on their back patio, Mary and Ben learn that their new neighbors are recovering drug addicts. This revelation would be more troubling if Sharon and Kenny didn't seem so nice—and if they didn't seem to offer some hard-won wisdom to the relatively sheltered Mary and Ben. As the two couples become closer, it becomes clear that Sharon and Kenny do offer a kind of wisdom—one that both threatens everything Mary and Ben have built and gives them a chance to begin again from the ground up.

Detroit is a good play, but a lopsided one: D’Amour’s writing is much better in the first act, where she artfully develops her characters and their relationships through idle conversations at backyard cookouts, than in the second, where the pace of the play somehow simultaneously races and drags and the orgiastic, surreal climactic scene makes her carefully crafted characters seem suddenly alien.

When they have strong material to work from, the cast of Portland Playhouse’s production is strong as well. Kelly Tallent lives up to her last name as Sharon, infusing her sweet, drug-addled portrayal with a whiff of danger, and Brooke Totman makes an impressive Portland professional theater debut as neurotic, naïve Mary.

Also impressive is Portland Playhouse’s deceptively simple staging. The entire play takes place in two adjoined backyards, but scenic and lighting designer Daniel Meeker, properties designer Rachel Peterson Schmerge, and sound designer Rodolfo Ortega utilize this small set to the fullest, employing theatrical tricks to affecting effect. When a character falls through a partially constructed deck, he appears to actually fall—and actually bleed. In a theater as intimate as Portland Playhouse, such verisimilitude is curiously powerful.

Thru Nov 3
Portland Playhouse 
Although Detroit stumbles in its second half, it doesn’t fall. The play’s epilogic scene leaves Mary and Ben—and the audience—gainfully reflecting on a very contemporary concept: that destruction can be a creative force. It’s an idea that’s already familiar to econ majors as Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction.” It’s familiar to addicts such as Sharon and Kenny, for whom rock bottom is a starting place. And it’s familiar to residents of real-life Detroit, where (as production dramaturg Kate Bredeson points out in Detroit’s program) a vibrant arts scene is sprouting from the auto industry’s wreckage. When Detroit ends, our recession-battered characters have the opportunity for such regeneration, but we don’t know whether the lives they make for themselves will be better ones. Will post-recession Detroit be a better city? Will post-recession America be a better nation?

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