Pick an adjective. Any adjective. Engaging, compelling, exciting; all good choices when it comes to describing Silver Spring Stage’s production of Superior Donuts. Written by Tracy Letts and Directed by Stenise Reaves, this poignant dramadey brings a dose of reality from the streets of Chicago straight to the audiences of Washington DC. Friendships, relationships, the past, the present, and the future; the overarching lesson is that life is hard but you don’t have to face it alone. Quickly becoming a modern theatre classic, this production is well-balanced and delivers the playwright’s message of living life as your life.
Tackling the challenge of the quaint and occasionally vision-obstructed play space at The Stage is Set Designer Bill Brown. Finding a way to enclose the donut shop upon itself, Brown gives the audience the voyeur’s vantage point. This allows the audience to have a thin film of detachment from the show so that it is easier to process the message at it unfurls in the plot. Brown keeps the remainder of the set design simple, letting the sparse charm speak to the years of existence the donut shop has seen; its humble beginnings still present in its current state.
In a play where a major plot shift arises from a staged fight it is crucial to have clean execution of this moment. Combat Choreographer William T. Fleming deserves a nod for his impeccable work, developing and delivering a sharp and clear moment of violent chaos on the stage between Luther and Arthur. The fight doesn’t carry on too long nor is it too brief to realize the potential of its importance to the plot. Fleming works well with what he has, incorporating the furniture in a realistic looking fashion that creates a lot of noise to further augment the fight.
Unfortunately, the production uses inconsistent ambient sound created by Sound Designer Sean Allan Doyle. Attempting to create a lively aural experience of a busy Chicago street in uptown, Doyle misuses the background noise throughout the production. At first it is barely audible and easily confused for noise that might be echoing in from an open window as it is sparse and very low. Doyle then increases the volume of the city sounds, and it plays continuously through the final scene, serving as a distraction to the show’s brilliant and emotional conclusion. The imbalance with the sound is distracting to the performance and could on the whole be cut completely without negatively effecting the production.
Also at this performance, while it was exceptionally acted, it had some timing flaws. Director Stenise Reaves sets a pace that wavers inconsistently throughout the production, at moments moving too slow for the play’s upbeat action. There are pauses of silence that are crafted into the production, many of which create exciting moments of tension or awkwardly hilarious moments of situational humor between Arthur and Randy. But there are also several of these pauses that feel superfluous and stunt the natural flow of the show’s rhythm. These unnatural pauses tend to occur mostly in Arthur’s soliloquies, and while the attempt to establish the slow of thought stoner type character is present, it feels drawn out.
Emotions and expressions as a whole in this production are handled extremely well; a good balance surfacing between the levity and the gravity of this piece. Reaves brings her cast together under the notion that telling the story is the most important thing the characters can do on the stage, and in pushing that honesty the text speaks naturally and a wonderful show is born. The chemistry is real, cultivated and cured over time; creating a vivid slice of life for all to experience.
Creating two exceptionally grounded characters in this production are William Cassidy as Max Tarasov and Greg Garcia as Luther Flynn. As different as night and day in regional accents (both executed to near perfection with the assistance of Dialect Coach Olga Shanks) these two characters are the most compelling in the production as they are so thoroughly fleshed out and fully developed. Cassidy as the rather boisterous Russian gives a brilliant rendition of babbling and fumbling his way through English colloquialisms. His gruff strained voice adds a rich feel to the character, authenticating the loud nature in which Russians are known to speak.
Garcia is the epitome of mobster incarnate. With a stiff gait that is thoroughly unflappable, he delves into the dark stereotype of heavy hit man, physically, vocally, and mentally. His portrayal is slick and sharp, his tongue like an articulate knife ready to slice and draw a little blood just for show. Garcia finds a humanity in this villainous character as well; subtly infused with perfectly balanced comic timing when he rants about his sister-in-law and his ulcer. A remarkable character role done with exciting vigor; Garcia is impressive as a performer.
Carrying the show’s main plot arch are Franco (Donta Hensley) and Arthur (Nick Torres.) The moments of tension, humor, and honesty that burble to the surface between these two characters, often in what remains unspoken is really the driving force behind the play. Hensley at times strums through his words so fast that he forgets to enunciate and some of the more poignant one-liners get dropped or obscured, but this factor aside he gives a rigorous performance of the upbeat street youth. Hensley finds the stillness in this generally frenetic character, making those bursts of energy particularly potent when they come zipping out of his body or his mouth. His comic timing is impressive and well suited for the character’s many quick quips.
Torres takes an interesting approach to the protagonist of the story. The deadpan delivery of many of his moments creates extremely hilarious scenarios with him and Hensley’s character. One of the best moments in the performance is Torres’ awkward flirtation scene with Officer Randy (Jill Goodrich). Being another moment where more is gleaned from what remains unspoken, this entire scene is carried to comic perfection by Goodrich’s silent responses, Torres’ awkward pauses and constant interruptions from Hensley’s quirky character. A well-rounded moment of honest, innocent, human perfection occurring between the trio.
Silver Spring Stage’s production of Superior Donuts is worth a look, because this play should be seen, as Tracy Letts’ work is paving the way as the new great American play.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission.
Superior Donuts plays through March 15, 2014 at Silver Spring Stage— 10145 Colesville Road in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets please call the box office at (301) 593- 6036 or purchased them online.
Real Life and Lots of Donuts: ‘Superior Donuts’ Opens at Silver Spring Stage by Lennie Magida.