Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Superior Donuts is a good, if not great, play, with a pair of highly likeable lead characters, and a satisfying, if somewhat formulaic, storyline. It has taken nine years for Superior Donuts to land on the stage of a Twin Cities theater company. While not quite a "stop the presses" event, it is well worth taking the opportunity to see it, especially as Lyric Arts Main Street Stage has assembled a winning cast, a firm directorial hand, and provided a handsome physical production.
The play takes place completely in the confines of the titular donut shop, a small operation in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood handed down to Arthur Przybyszewski by his Polish immigrant father. Arthur grew up in the Polish-American enclave of Jefferson Park, but his father setup his business in Uptown, a once thriving neighborhood now on the skids that offered low rents. In 2008 gentrification has come to Uptown, and Arthur, now in his early 60s, faced with rising rent and flagging energy, struggles to keep up with the Starbucks across the street. If Arthur feels strongly about anything it is to avoid change. By his very appearance we see that he is stuck in the long hair and torn jeans wardrobe of his youth. His business neighbor Max, a gregarious Russian, begs Arthur to sell the shop to him so he can expand his video store into a full-line electronics mart. Arthur refuses, more to avoid the uncertainties of change than out of any loyalty to his father's legacy or joy in his daily work.
Enter Franco Wicks, a 21-year-old African-American who comes about the help-wanted sign Arthur has posted in the shop window to replace his sole employee who recently bailed out. Franco's entrance establishes him as a bright, funny and ambitious young man, and he bowls Arthur over into giving him the job. Immediately, Franco proposes changes to bring new life to the shabby donut shop, like adding healthy food choices, putting up art work, getting a radio (Arthur really keeps the place spare) and playing music, and holding poetry readings. Franco reveals himself to be an aspiring writer with the first draft of his self-proclaimed great American novel. Arthur and Franco make an odd, but touching and quite funny pair, and the shop seems to be hanging on, if not quite thriving.
We also meet a loan shark who promises to cause trouble, and a sweet homeless woman called Lady, a pair of beat cops, James and Randy, who may be nurturing a crush on Arthur, who, for his part, is terrified of taking a chance on happiness. Between the play scenes, Arthur offers soliloquies in which we learn about this life up to this pointhis childhood in the working-class mecca that was Chicago in the 1950s, his political awakening in the 1960s that caused a falling out with his father, a period of drift, a failed marriage, and an estranged child.
Two dominant themes emerge: the father-son dynamic between Arthur and Franco, and the futility of resisting change, along with the gains and losses change can bring. There is nothing very deep or revelatory in these, but the points come across through dialogue that rings true, a believable storyline, and a winning balance of sharp humor and tenderness. It is all very nice, if less than compelling.
Director Matt McNabb pumps up the production at Lyrics Arts by giving it a steady pace, fast enough to hold interest, but with time enough to see past the barbs in the dialogue to sense the character's motivations and feelings. Arthur's soliloquies seem to be an awkward ploy used by the playwright to provide background not delivered through the narrative, but McNabb manages to integrate these seamlessly into the flow of the play.
Jeffrey Goodson is terrific as Arthur, creating a fully believable man who was worn down early in life and never found a way to regain a sense of joy or purpose, but keeps going for lack of anything better to do. In his relationship with Franco, Goodson reveals the glimmer of pleasure Arthur can take in finding something of value in his life. Malick Ceesay is equally fine as Franco, animating the young man with a confidence and intelligence, but also showing us his prideful vulnerability.
Among the other actors, Jamie White Jachimiec nicely plays Randy as a tough gal able to hold her own among fellow cops, but who is awkward with facing softer feelings. Her partner James is played well by Richard "Doc" Woods, a good cop with long ties to the neighborhood. Bill Williamson as Luther, the loan shark, does a swell job as a lout who has carefully polished his good-guy persona. Martha Wigmore creates a poignant image as Lady, the homeless alcoholic adrift in her own world. Only Peter Aitchison, as Max, is off-key, pushing the Russian's bravado and bluster to the point of caricature.
Gabriel Gomez has beautifully imagined Superior Donuts with his stage design, putting in all the details to make the long-lived establishment feel like the real thing, down to such minutia as an "Employees Only" sticker on the metal swing door between the shop and the kitchen in back. Jim Eischen's lighting is superb, with outside lightsunlight by day, streetlight in the eveningshining into the interior space through the large plate glass window, and smoothly transitioning back and forth to spotlight Arthur's monologues. Lucas Skjaret's costumes are just right for each character. A highly unlikely fight that is a pivotal moment for the play is grippingly staged by fight director Aaron Preusse. Dialect donsultant Keely Wolter has done excellent work coaching the cast in their respective Chicago-Irish, Polish-American and Russian accents.
There is so much good work on the Lyric Arts stage that one wishes the play were a bit stronger. Some elements seem tossed in without any reason, other than to add a bit of humor, such as one character's secret life as a "Star Trek" loyalist, while others that cry for more understanding, such as Arthur's relationship with his daughter, are left untapped. Tracy Letts' earliest plays, such as Killer Joe and Bug, were edgy, dangerous, off-the-wall stuff. August: Osage County kept that edge, put was placed in the more traditional setting of a multi-generational family drawn together by a tragic event. Nothing in Superior Donuts feels edgy or invokes danger. Nor does it feel new. It brings to mind the wonderful Lanford Wilson play The Hot l Baltimore that felt new in 1973 but its formata range of disparate characters brought together in a derelict settingis no longer novel. Coincidently (or maybe not), The Hot l Baltimore was also, briefly, a sitcom.
But to harp on the disappointments and flaws in the play or its failure to attain the heights of its predecessors, diminishes the genuine merits of the writing and the satisfaction in its very human story of a person in the crosshairs of change. It is also, quite often, very funny. With a beautifully realized production by Lyrics Arts Main Street Stage, it is certainly time to make acquaintance with Superior Donuts and well worth the drive to their theater in Anoka's historic downtown. One word of advice: bring donuts for the ride home. You will no doubt leave the theater with a major craving.
Superior Donuts, through January 28, 2018. at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. Tickets from $30.00 - $26.00; seniors $28.00 - $24.00; Age 25 and younger $25.00 - $21.00. For information and tickets call 763-422-1838 or visit lyricarts.org.
Playwright: Tracy Letts; Director: Matt McNabb; Scenic Design: Gabriel Gomez; Costume Design: Lucas Skjaret; Lighting Design: Jim Eischen; Sound Design: Topher Pirkl; Prop Design: Emma Davis; Fight Director: Aaron Preusse; Dialect Consultant: Keely Wolter; Stage Manager: Samson Perry; Assistant Stage Manager: Lea Brucker.
Cast: Peter Aitchison (Max Tarasov), Tyus Beeson (Kevin Magee), Malick Ceesay (Franco Wicks), Jeffrey Goodson (Arthur Przybyszewski), Jamie White Jachimiec (Officer Randy Osteen), Timothy Johnson (Kiril Ivakin), Martha Wigmore (Lady Boyle), Bill Williamson (Luther Flynn), Richard "Doc" Woods (Officer James Bailey).