By JOAN TADDIE
The smell of donuts and the rhythms of 60’s music invite you into the 30-seat venue of the Theatre on the Edge’s current production of Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts.” Then you see it — scenic designer Samantha diGeorge’s donut shop with counter and bright red revolving stools and trays of freshly baked and decorated donuts. It’s like your college days when you sat for hours over a donut and a cup of coffee debating the politics. Suddenly the music swells, the beat intensifies and as the lights go to black you are yanked into a comedy that makes you laugh and makes you think.
The Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago premiered the original stage version of “Superior Donuts” in 2008. It opened on Broadway in 2009 starring Michael McKean and John Michael Hill. While Mr. Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning drama, “August: Osage County,” serves up a startling, confrontational theatrical feast, “Superior Donuts” brings forth a sweet and affectionate portrayal of people dealing with racial, political and gentrification tensions in culturally diverse Chicago.
The play begins at the end of 2009 when we are introduced to Max Tarasov, skillfully played by Robb Maus. Max is a middle aged Russian immigrant who believes fervently in the American dream — that hard work and adaptation to the American lifestyle will eventually translate to acceptance and prosperity. Mr. Maus lights up every scene he is in with sustained energy and a masterly performance.
Arthur Przybyszewski is the son of Polish and Russian immigrants and is an ex-60’s radical who has been out of touch with his ex-wife and daughter for years. Recently his ex-wife has died and he struggles to find the strength to call his daughter. He is stuck in the past and feels responsible for keeping the donut shop just as it was when his father was alive.
Allan Whitehead immerses himself into the character of Arthur, a man devoid of hope; a man who lives in the past and relives painful memories. We hear about these memories in Arthur’s despondent monologues that are used to separate the scenes. Mr. Whitehead delivers these monologues with passion and sensitivity. They are the highlight of his astute performance.
Although there are clever comedic lines throughout the play, the show-stopping comedy is saved for the character Franco Wicks, brilliantly performed by Sean Philippe. Mr. Philippe gives his character the polish, the confidence and the comedic timing needed to hit a home-run with every wisecrack, witticism, quip and play on words. The character of Franco, a young, energetic African American student and writer, troubled but not without hope is the perfect opposite of Arthur. Hired to help in the donut shop, Franco eventually breathes new life into the melancholy Arthur. Additionally, Mr. Philippe shows his impressive dramatic acting chops in the scenes that involve his dark side and his beloved book.Lady is a homeless old woman who frequents the shop whenever she needs a glazed donut and a cup of coffee. She always “pays” with a treasured trinket that Arthur affectionately adds to a special display case. Neila Lake’s impeccable performance as Lady, from her facial tics, her costume choices and her oft spoke line, “Can I have a donut?” endears her to the other characters and to the audience. Lady is a survivor and finds comfort in knowing that she always has a liquor free sanctuary at the donut shop. And, although it might not be obvious, Lady sees and hears all. And when she chooses to speak, it is with the wisdom of having survived in the harsh and lonely world of alcoholism and personal sorrow. She always tells the truth, whether you want to hear it or not.
Other diverse characters visit the donut shop including two Chicago police officers, Officer James Bailey (Mark Anthony Kelly) and Officer Randy Osteen (Cecilia Gazzara), two members of an Irish mob organization, Luther Flynn (Marco DiGeorge) and Kevin Magee (Zack Roundy), and a recent immigrant from Russia, Kiril Ivakin (Anthony Belevtsov). All of these actors give a polished and focused performance. Mr. Letts, unfortunately, leaves the audience wanting to know more about these characters. Perhaps that is why the play became the basis for a CBS TV sitcom (with Judd Hirsch and Jermaine Fowler).
Resident Director, Pam Harbaugh, once again gives the script life and heart. Her blocking flows naturally within the small space available to her actors even in the most violent scenes. Her directorial magic is also evident in the strong characterizations she helps create.
Kudos to the creative team of technical designers and running crew: Samantha DiGeorge, the company’s gifted resident scenic designer, uses hyperrealism so that the set becomes “another character” in the play; and the carefully selected music for the sound track are examples of the technical excellence the audiences at this theater have come to expect.
“Superior Donuts is a play about hope. If a person says that they truly have “hope,” it means there is something that they are “doing” to bring about the change in their life that they desire. As Franco states, “Never stop movin’.” Never stop “doing” something that propels you to your goal. It is hard work, but the dream is yours to take.Franco quotes Langston Hughes:
“America never was America to me
And yet I swear this oath
America will be!”
Today, many people worry about what “America will be!” I’m not worried because I believe the tapestry of America is made of many different threads that come together to create a beautiful masterpiece called Democracy.
“Superior Donuts,” like America, serves up different types of donuts for different types of people. All delicious!
SIDE O’ GRITS: SUPERIOR DONUTS runs through July 2 at Theater on the Edge, 5542 Hansel Ave., Orlando. $19 to $24. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit TheaterOnTheEdge.org.