DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour (Coal Mine Theatre). Runs to August 7 at the Coal Mine (1454 Danforth Avenue). $70. coalminetheatre.com. Rating: NNNN
Lisa D’Amour wrote Detroit in the summer of 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis and the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Now, in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, staggering inflation and with ecological calamities a monthly occurrence, Coal Mine Theatre’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated play has an eerie, haunting relevance.
Suburban couple Mary (Diana Bentley) and Ben (Sergio Di Zio) have just discovered the house next to theirs is occupied by another couple, so they invite them over for a backyard barbecue. In walk Sharon (Louise Lambert) and Kenny (Craig Lauzon), who decline alcohol (they met in a rehab facility) but are happy to meet their neighbours. Sharon is particularly moved; in fact, she’s so starved for neighbourliness and real human connection that she cries. (Who hasn’t felt this way after years of pandemic isolation?)
Introductions are exchanged, details about employment shared and it soon turns out Kenny, who has worked in construction before, will fix Mary and Ben’s broken sliding doors, while Ben, who’s been laid off from his job as a bank loan officer and is starting up his own web-based business, might be able to help with Kenny’s financial issues.
Amidst the couple’s chitchat, there’s some tinkering with a broken patio table umbrella that turns out to have symbolic importance. The thing might be broken, but it still provides some protection for the more prosperous, if challenged, Mary and Ben.
Over the next few days and weeks, we check in on the couples and get to know them a bit more, witnessing the cracks in their marriages and the lies they keep from their partners but tell their neighbours. Mary and Sharon bond over an idealized notion of going to the forest and living there.
Under Jill Harper’s direction, the play moves quickly, almost breezily, towards its conclusion, with the occasional awkward pause for scene changes. Ken MacDonald’s intriguing set features realistic details in the foreground but the houses themselves seem flimsy and almost made of sticks, suggesting that everything could come toppling down at any moment. And Melanie McNeill’s costumes do a lot of work in establishing the characters’ social level, from Mary and Ben’s athletic leisure wear to Sharon’s branded Ts that might as well have been borrowed from Kenny.
The fact that Harper uses so much of the narrow space of the theatre, however, means that some audience members bunched together at the extreme ends of the space might find it difficult to see what’s going on across the venue. (It seems like the best seats are along the wall itself.)
In such an intimate space, the actors have nowhere to hide, which allows us, like flies on the wall, to savour their reactions to what’s going on. Bentley is especially good at shooting Ben significant looks in the couple’s initial assessment of their neighbours. And during a raucous blowout party, you’ll want to see the effect a couple of actions have on others.
Each of the quartet is solid (and so is Eric Peterson in a poignant coda), but Lambert deserves special mention; her radiant performance feels spontaneous and slightly dangerous. Intuitive, intelligent and wanting to change her circumstances, Sharon delivers a heartbreaking line about life having a dream-like quality that Harper seems to apply to the production itself.
The pandemic has forced us to re-examine how everything works; relationships, employment, the haves and the have-nots, the social safety net – or the lack thereof. L’Amour’s play miraculously gets us thinking about all these things, and wondering how we’re to live our lives from now on. A pretty important takeaway.