'Superior Donuts' a sweet confection and vehicle to affect change
CLEVELAND HEIGHTS — Put yourself in the place of donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski, one of the central characters in “Superior Donuts,” Tracy Letts' sweet but not overly sentimental play with pathos, humor and heart on-stage at Dobama Theatre through May 24.
Your shop’s just been vandalized in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood and a young black man with a hoodie comes screaming and pounding on the door, inquiring about a job.
You might reach for the phone.
Przybyszewski reaches for the door...and by turning the knob, invites inside a world of optimism and signs of a better future.
As it turns out, the personality of the visitor, Franco Wicks, is as warm and refreshing as a breeze off the ocean on a pleasant summer night on the beach.
It’s easy to immediately become emotionally invested in him, but much harder to make that leap of faith and reach for the door, not the phone — or worse, your firearm, as has become too familiar these days).
“Superior Donuts” is not only a vastly engaging play, with sharp, quick-paced, humorous dialogue and likable characters, but a vehicle to perhaps affect change.
“Donuts” doesn't break new ground in plays about race relations and stereotypes. But its aforementioned positive qualities make these “Donuts” as essential viewing as those fried pastries are non-essential eating.
Under Nathan Motta’s sensitive direction, giving equal weight to the comedy and drama, Dobama's cast and crew triumphs in a well-designed, well-acted production.
Joel Hammer has internalized the role of the donut shop owner, capturing the hippie draft dodger's unassuming, soft-spoken, laid back, even apathetic demeanor without making him boring.
Hammer’s at his best when the action breaks at different points for his character to tell his story about draft dodging, marriage problems and the hurtful, psyche-shattering last word from his father.
With a simple shrug of a shoulder, raise of an eyebrow or pause, Hammer, in a natural manner, talks to the audience as though he were having a one-on-one conversation with a familiar acquaintance. Hammer injects tremendous nuance into a portrayal of an emotionally injured man who's doing his best to hide the pain, which he convincingly conveys when necessary. (the soft lighting designer Marcus Dana employs during the extended but broken up monologue reinforces an atmosphere of memory).
Part of the pleasure of the play is watching the charismatic, witty Wicks, armed with a can-do attitude, try to convince his boss to revitalize the decrepit donut shop (designed with detail, such as a Chicago Cubs pennant, by Aaron Benson).
Robert Hunter gives Wicks a vivacious, ambitious energy. He plays him as wide-eyed, goal-oriented man filled with such optimism and drive, you want to befriend him (think Wesley Snipes).
So it came as no surprise that during the performance I saw, gasps of pity emanated from the audience when officer James Bailey (a little too casual Lashawn Little, resulting in no contrast between him and his affable partner, Officer Randy Osteen, a tomboyish, caring Amy Fritsche) reveals Wicks was beaten in a most brutal manner by a couple thugs (John Busser, playing his character, Luther Flynn, as a patient but intimidating mobster with more humanity than Kevin MaGee, a quietly menacing Dean Coutris.)
Thugs or no thugs, Przybyszewski has his employee and friend's back, as does a next-door Russian businessman (an excitable, passionate Allan Byrne with a convincing accent).
Tolerance, change and the power of friendship are key themes in the play as is the conflict between holding onto the past and embracing the future.
Unfortunately, a past of racism and intolerance maintains a tighter grip on society than we’d all hope.
“Superior Donuts” loosens that grip by, in part, illuminating the potency of friendship.
Naive? Perhaps. But until friendship, even between people with vast differences, becomes the norm and hostilities tossed aside, how do we know?
Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org