Detroit — Image courtesy The Jungle Theater


The Jungle Theater
Directed by Joel Sass

When asked about the mood of incendiary anxiety that haunts Detroit (2011), playwright Lisa D’Amour remarked:

I often describe the feeling of the play as though these four characters are going about their lives at a normal backyard barbecue. And I imagine that their world is a diorama. And perched on the edge are these giant birds of prey hovering over them and the characters know they are there. And if they make one wrong move, they’re going to get snapped up. I love that feeling, the sense of people acting like everything is fine. “This is just great!” And at any moment their entire world is going to collapse. At any moment these big birds could pluck them out.

The Jungle Theater’s current production of Detroit (directed by Joel Sass) does an expert job of conveying this air of barely restrained panic felt by characters who know, on some level, how close to the precipice they dwell and yet seem determined to soldier on despite the fact that nothing better clearly awaits them.

In the company of other recent narratives that replace suburban myopia with suburban instability and disintegration, Detroit is able to delve beyond the common “I hate the suburbs” trope first popularized by John Cheever in the 1940s and 50s, sustained by slasher films of the late 1970s and 80s, and recently reiterated by such television programs as Weeds. Rather than merely bemoaning the conformity and cultural emptiness of life in a post-war tract house, Detroit asks what about this way of life has (or perhaps had) its merits and what is being lost as the middle class shrinks.

The play centers upon the interactions between two couples, Mary (Angela Timberman) and Ben (John Middleton), and Sharon (Anna Sundberg) and Kenny (Tyson Forbes). Mary and Ben have lived in the neighborhood (described as a first-ring suburb of a mid-sized American city) for a number of years, whereas Sharon and Kenny have just moved in. Mary works as a paralegal, and Ben has just been laid off from his job as a loan officer and is attempting to launch his own financial planning practice. Sharon and Kenny, who say they met at rehab, work in a phone bank and a warehouse respectively, and seem to subscribe to fewer middle-class values such as hard work paying off and the importance of setting goals and making long-range plans.

Detroit — Image courtesy The Jungle TheaterAs is common in stories set in middle-class neighborhoods, Detroit almost immediately crucifies the notion that the suburbs signify safety, as we see the many ways the accoutrements of suburban life (folding picnic umbrellas, decks, and sliding glass doors) malfunction and sometimes even cause injury. This highly circumscribed order that is supposed to provide structure and security doesn’t merely threaten the characters, both emotionally and physically, but also entraps them. Mary, Kenny, and Sharon all suffer from addiction, fueled partially by their desires to escape the mundane, and Ben is stuck doing (or at least pretending to do) a job he hates, all while wishing he were someone and somewhere else.

As is also common in stories set in suburban landscapes, the play recognizes a past that was supposedly more idyllic, a past indicated by the names of the streets in the neighborhood — names of different kinds of light such as “Solar Power Avenue” and “Fluorescent Lane.” These names point to a time when the American middle class had power — when their lives, their futures, were full of light. They are names that Mary, Ben, Sharon, and Kenny now mock as emblematic of a time long since passed.

Despite the play’s sense of inertia, stemming largely from the economic instability that dogs the lives of the characters, Detroit resists the urge to paint the past as a time of perfection. This becomes clear when, at the end of the play, Frank (Jay Hornbacher), a man who lived in the neighborhood in its heyday, returns to talk with Mary and Ben about what life was like when he was young. He details what are commonly thought to be normal facets of life in the post-war suburbs: conversations shared over backyard fences, neighbors borrowing sugar and eggs from one another, and dances where adults could lose themselves for a few hours while knowing that their children were under the watchful eyes of trustworthy babysitters. Just when Frank’s monologue about “the good old days” starts to drag a bit, he states, “such a perfect memory. Sometimes I wonder if it was real at all.” This simple inquiry questions whether nostalgia for that which has been lost ever truly tells the whole story, and it makes us wonder how far Mary, Ben, Sharon, and Kenny have truly transgressed from a past that was probably never as perfect as they are often led to believe.

Detroit — Image courtesy The Jungle TheaterWhile questioning the validity of depictions of the past that gloss over the less savory aspects of suburban life, Detroit is certainly rooted in the modern day. It is unflinching in its depictions of chemical dependency, economic insolvency, social isolation, and occupational dissatisfaction. While the play doesn’t suggest that these are solely present-day ills, it does imply that economic stress is more widespread in the suburbs than it once was and that this dooms the residents to a constant state of stagnation. “Nothing ever happens,” Sharon complains, and indeed it does seem as if everyone in the play has an awfully hard time escaping from their backyards. Mary and Sharon’s camping trip to the woods (which, they both believe or say they believe, will restore their courage and sense of wonder) is thwarted by bad directions and a flat tire. Ben and Kenny’s night out is halted by the unexpected early return or Mary and Sharon from their failed camping trip. Ben is housebound as he procrastinates on building his website. Communication goes nowhere as a matter of course and regardless of who is talking and who is supposed to be listening. Progress doesn’t seem like an option for anyone, despite what the mythos of the American dream or the rhetoric of rehabilitation indicates.

Even given the sense of futility within which everyone in the play seems to toil, Detroit shows the two couples doing the very things that neighbors supposedly did in the 1950s, the very things that Sharon laments early on that neighbors no longer do. They have each other over for dinner; give each other advice, support, and furniture; and even have a party that mimics the neighborhood dances Frank waxes nostalgic about. What is fascinating is that nearly every instance of the two couples coming together in a neighborly way results in, if not tragedy, at least pain and injury. People’s need to connect with others hasn’t changed, D’Amour seems to be saying, but the conditions under which they are forced to relate have, so much so that the supposedly easy back and forth of American postwar neighborhoods is now an impossibility.

Despite the theme of failure that haunts most of the play, the ending, while tragic, is still hopeful. It is clear that, by play’s end, Mary and Ben have been given the chance to start anew. The elements in their lives that were misfiring, rotting, and keeping them entrapped have been removed, and the last lines in the play indicate that perhaps, if they take the time to really “see” each other, something they have been unable to do throughout the play, their future might be a happier place than their past.

An evening with Detroit is an evening well spent. All the actors put in worthy performances, with none outshining any other but all creating a frantically electrifying harmony. Everyone’s range is such that they are able to be reserved, enthusiastic, awkward, or bacchanalian as each scene requires. Joel Sass’s sets perfectly render the gothic-tinged intimacy of two suburban backyards. When one looks at the stage, one is not sure whether to feel stifled or comforted, and this, I think, is the point. These houses and their accompanying yards represent both freedom and containment; they act as both shelters and prisons. What’s more, they are slowly becoming dilapidated and yet still adhere strongly to their dreams of beauty and prosperity. It is rare for sets to convey this much, but Sass’s do, and, what’s more, they beautifully mirror the inner lives of the people who dwell among them.

Detroit will be at The Jungle through May 25th.

Photos by Michal Daniel

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.