Set not in Detroit itself, but in one of those cookie-cutter model-home communities that once housed vibrant family-friendly communities on the outskirts of cities like it, Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit opens as Mary (Alyssa Herron), a paralegal, and her husband Ben (Brett Sullivan Santry), a recently laid-off loan officer, host a barbecue dinner for their new neighbors, Sharon (Sara Fisher) and Kenny (John Feightner). Mary and Ben are solidly “normal” strivers toward the American Dream: they’ve got the recognizable accoutrements and trappings of proper consumerist life – discount patio set, aspirational taste in food, a mortgage on one of those starter homes with some deferred maintenance issues – along with all the nervous anxiety and bickering that comes with the stress of Ben’s layoff. Sharon and Kenny, on the other hand, exist on the margins of that dream. Just released from rehab for major substance abuse, they’ve moved into Kenny’s deceased aunt’s house and are trying to reboot their lives as sober citizens. Their physical, emotional, and psychological incursion into Ben and Mary’s carefully contained lives not only reveals the fissures and cracks in Ben and Mary’s relationship, but also pokes through the threadbare patches in the fabric of early twenty-first century American society.
I’m being deliberately cagey in describing what happens in the play because it has a number of plot twists it would be unfair to give away. Suffice it to say that Ben and Mary’s relatively blinkered experience of life has them at a disadvantage: they can’t even begin to compass the way Sharon and Kenny – who describe themselves as “white trash” – encounter and cope with the world. The two couples inhabit completely different universes: Ben and Mary are holding desperately onto the piece of the pie they’ve managed to slice off, whereas Sharon and Kenny have nothing at all, which means they have nothing to lose. Their abandon, their lack of heed and their impulsive hedonism are scary – but also seductive and, as it turns out, radically subversive.
The 12 Peers ensemble is good at capturing the mayhem of many of the script’s moments, showing how even small stressors can set off manic responses. But they have more difficulty capturing its dangerous edginess. Fisher and Feightner’s Sharon and Kenny seem too affable and middle class; it’s hard to see in them people who have lived most of their lives on the fringes and in a criminal and drug underworld. As Mary, Herron is suitably tightly wound, but it’s Santry who stands out in the cast as the anxious, self-defeating Ben. James Jamison’s set evocatively conjures the small backyards of the kind of starter home my own grandparents purchased in the fifties (just outside of Detroit, no less!), making the final scene a poignant one for those of us who have seen how such neighborhoods have changed over the decades. But the production design could have used better planning for its multiple scene changes, all of which involved overly lengthy blackouts to allow for a clumsy shifting of props and scenery.