REVIEW: Detroit at Coal Mine Theatre 

Detroit is not set in Detroit. Or perhaps it is. 

The script for Lisa D’Amour’s Obie-winning, Pulitzer-nominated play says that the setting is “a ‘first-ring’ suburb outside of a mid-sized American city” that is “not necessarily Detroit.” About the time, however, D’Amour is definitive: it’s “now.”

D’Amour wrote the play in the wake of the 2008 global economic downturn and the lingering aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: “those ideas of destruction and rebirth were still in my mind,” she said in an interview, excerpted in the program for Coal Mine Theatre’s current production. Detroit was first produced at Steppenwolf in Chicago in 2010, had an off-Broadway staging at Playwrights Horizons in 2012 starring David Schwimmer and Amy Ryan, and has been mounted many times since, particularly in American regional theatres. This Coal Mine staging, directed by Jill Harper, is the play’s Toronto premiere.

The ambiguity about its setting, combined with the precision about its timing, is representative of the play, which is at once ultra-naturalistic and full of layered, allusive significance. It’s the story of two couples who have just become neighbours in an American subdivision called Bright Houses. Ben (Sergio Di Zio) and Mary (Diana Bentley) are homeowners whose grasp on the middle class is slipping, while Kenny (Craig Lauzon) and Sharon (Louise Lambert) are low-income renters trying to get their lives on track. Exactly how they came to be living in the same neighbourhood is a question that drives the play.  

There’s a lot of complicated physical business, much involving things falling apart: a half-built patio floor collapses, a picnic table umbrella won’t stay up. There’s also a running trope of real-time barbequing — three times, the play’s two male characters “throw these puppies on the grill”, and the fact that Kenny directly echoes Ben in how he describes that action is one of the text’s many precise details.

The intrigue of the play is exactly what’s going on between the characters, and what that might represent. They’re all seduced by each other to some extent, but there’s also threat, menace, and a pervading sense of loss underlined in a coda featuring an elderly neighbour (Eric Peterson). It becomes clear that D’Amour is setting the characters up as synecdoche for a larger national malaise around economic and locational disenfranchisement. 

Program notes connect the play to the post-pandemic context. Coal Mine co-leaders Bentley and Ted Dykstra have written about how we continue to live through a period of intense change, while Harper discusses loneliness and the longing for connection. Certainly, the timing of this staging as recession looms and the local housing market slows down adds to its topicality. But in other ways the play is tethered to the original time period, D’Amour’s “now”: by the extremity and immediacy of the threat of destruction, and by lateral reference to online phenomena such as Second Life that were hot 10 years ago, but not so much anymore. 

Harper’s Coal Mine production is strong and has potential to deepen and further explore the aggression underlying the text. It may be though, that this layer was more present than I was able to discern, and this has to do with the way the intimate Coal Mine Theatre has been configured. The playing area is a long horizontal space, and the audience is seated on three sides of the action, so that at any point some spectators can’t see the actors’ faces. From my vantage in one of the side banks of seating, I found that I couldn’t engage with characters and relationships as much as I wished to.  

Somewhat paradoxically, it’s Lambert, a late addition to the cast, who best conveys her character’s complexities. Past pain and an ongoing battle with addiction lie directly underneath Sharon’s just-too-sunny demeanor, and this starts to seep out from the first scene, when she bursts into tears while talking about the importance of real communication. Lambert plays the ambiguity of this moment superbly: it’s both attractive and excessive, evidence of someone barely keeping their shit together. 

Bentley’s Mary is drawn to Sharon’s emotional availability: she’s extremely tightly wound, her bob ironed obsessively into place and her outfits an exercise in studied casual chic (costumes are by Melanie McNeill). She goes next door in the middle of the night and rants to Sharon about all the little ways that Ben is getting on her nerves. When Sharon calls her out for having a drinking problem, Mary goes into a screaming rage, credible in the moment but then tamped right down again in the subsequent scenes. From my perspective Bentley’s performance of control and surface pleasantness was perhaps too effective.  

Similarly, Di Zio’s Ben was so gormlessly charming, always with a sheepish smile, that I wished for more access to what was going on inside him, particularly in his relationship with Kenny. Ben initially takes the upper hand by offering the other man his services as financial advisor, but later asks for payment in exchange. Does he really need the money; is he trying to punish Kenny or teach him a lesson? In the same scene, the fact that Kenny easily persuades Ben to go to a strip club seemed surprising because Di Zio was playing his character as so much of an uptight nice guy. Lauzon hits the easygoing notes in Kenny’s character well, but the suppressed negative emotion that needs to underlie his purposeful and inadvertent revelations about his precarious financial state is not fully communicated.

Overall, it feels like there are still things to discover about the characters’ attraction to each other. That attraction is at least partly class ambition: the poorer couple want what the richer one has, hence their mimicking of the same bourgeois activities. But it’s also class envy and suppressed rage — it needs to be, in order to justify the play’s climactic action. That’s not fully coming through yet, nor is Ben and Mary’s hunger for wildness. 

The actors and production team accomplish many of the numerous bits of physical business skillfully: a gash Ben gets on his leg is gorily convincing and there is some excellent staging and intimacy choreography (by Siobhan Richardson) in the climactic scene of bacchanal. That said, the physical environment seems flimsy: the fact that Ken McDonald’s set itself shook  when the characters demonstrated a faulty screen door disturbed the naturalistic artifice. Kimberley Purtell’s lighting and Tim Lindsay’s sound are effective throughout, and particularly in conveying the big moment of disaster. 

Having Peterson’s character Frank appear in the final ten minutes of the play and offer crucial plot details is on the one hand a classic deus ex machina (one Peterson delivers with perfectly calibrated ruefulness), but in keeping with the rest of the play, D’Amour leaves ambiguities hanging. Was this suburban enclave ever the paradise that Frank would like to remember? Even he’s not sure. Do Ben and Mary still have a grip on home ownership and more broadly, on reality; is endorsing a narrative Ben has constructed around his life an act of generosity on Mary’s part, or of capitulation? 

I continue to mull those questions from a certain emotional distance. I appreciated this production as a chance to engage with a well-wrought piece of contemporary dramaturgy, but was also left wondering if Detroit is a play of a moment that has passed.

Detroit runs at Coal Mine Theatre through August 7. Tickets are available here.

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Written By

Karen Fricker is a theatre critic at the Toronto Star, editorial advisor for Intermission magazine, adjunct professor of Dramatic Arts at Brock University, and a member of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. She previously worked as a critic in London, UK; Dublin, Ireland; and New York City, and has a PhD in theatre studies from Trinity College, Dublin. Her book The Original Stage Productions of Robert Lepage: Making Theatre Global (Manchester University Press) was the winner of the 2022 Canadian Association for Theatre Research’s Ann Saddlemyer Award for the best book in English on a Canadian topic. Her research interests also include contemporary circus and the changing nature of theatre criticism in the digital age.