Theater Review: In Backyard America, Detroit Finds American Dream Lost In a Suburban Orbit

What is the American dream? What is your American dream? Lisa D’Amour insists that these are indeed two different questions in Detroit, her tragi-comic play that was a 2011 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In it, we meet two couples: one suddenly sliding down the economic scale and the other with nowhere else to fall. They’re neighbors, this is the recession, and they’re going to have a get-to-know-you barbecue. Because no one has the money to go out anymore.

Your reaction to Detroit will probably depend on your own personal recession experience. Either you’ll glimpse a frighteningly real bit of present-day truth or you’ll wonder if you’re watching a version of The Twilight Zone.

Detroit (which the program helpfully notes is not necessarily set in Detroit) uses these people set adrift in a hollow suburban neighborhood as examples of our own loneliness and uncertainty. One couple seems to be doggedly chugging along toward the middle-class dream. The other is wild and unpredictable, focused less on paychecks and financial planning than on wringing enjoyment from each tedious day. The economically turbulent times—and a series of neighborly barbecues—act as a trigger, forcing an explosive finale that’s not as unexpected as it might first seem.

With the pungent tang of real grass scenting the theater (thanks to Clare Floyd DeVries’ sod-tastic set), we find Mary (Tina Parker) and Ben (Ira Steck, congenially playing the everyman) bustling around their patio, preparing a cookout to welcome their new neighbors. The umbrella won’t stay up, the sliding glass door sticks, but they’re still going to have fun, damnit.

With her grounded performance, Tina Parker once again proves why she’s one of the best actresses in Dallas. As Mary, a paralegal who disguises her worrywart tendencies and occasionally nagging nature with aspirations of becoming the perfect hostess, Parker is alarmingly recognizable. When faced with people who are many rungs lower on the socio-economic ladder—yet oddly enticing—her Mary taps into familiar insecurities, jealousies, neuroses, and other ugly traits that flair up from time to time, especially when we’re feeling lost or threatened.

Of course, this undisguised behavior is helped by the fact that Mary is hammered for a good bit of the show. Her husband is newly laid off and swears he’s starting an e-business, and this is how she copes. Watching Parker gain liquid courage with each sneaked sip of vodka plants an uncomfortable ice cube in the belly, a feeling that swells when it becomes apparent that she’s not the only one who’s eager to cut the crap and get real.

Flighty Sharon (Jenny Ledel, barely stopping to take a breath) and macho Kenny (Jeremy Schwartz, master of the understatement) met in rehab—or so they say—and are crashing next door at the house vacated by Kenny’s deceased aunt. She works at a call center, he labors at a warehouse, and both are the very definition of uninhibited. At first they seem exciting and dangerous to the staid Mary and Ben, but quickly they morph into an invitation to re-examine their life choices and possibly forge a new path.

A touch of surrealism, encouraged by director Tim Johnson, permeates the show. It’s odd that Mary and the newly laid-off Ben have no family or friends. It’s even odder still that the intense bond formed by the quartet doesn’t give anyone pause, despite a comment here and there that would give anyone pause.

“Nobody borrows a cup of sugar anymore,” Sharon laments. But when another (unseen) neighbor shows up at Kenny and Sharon’s front door, they panic. Turns out there’s a difference between baring your soul and passing the time.