In Lisa D'Amour's Detroit, a backyard barbecue with new neighbors escalates into an outrageous series of drunken mishaps and questionable choices. At a recent rehearsal, the physical demands on the actors were apparent as they crawled across floors and climbed on ragged furniture. In the play, they get caught up in violent arguments and amorous embraces as they watch the world fall apart around them, and any of the scene's initial stereotypes of suburban malaise get shattered beyond recognition.
"I like to think of Detroit as a balance of realism and dream life — characters whose lives have been pushed to the point where nothing seems normal anymore," says playwright D'Amour. "The anxiety and the desire to bust out of yourself becomes so strong that something mystical happens."
Southern Rep's production of D'Amour's breakout play opens this week at the Ashe Power House Theater. D'Amour, a New Orleans native, developed Detroit at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2010. The play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and, after moving to New York in 2012, earned D'Amour an Obie Award for Best New American Play.
Detroit tells the story of two couples living on the outskirts of a dying city and trying to navigate the effects of the economic downturn. Mild-mannered homeowners Ben (Mike Harkins) and Mary (Jessica Podewell) are jarred from the comfort of their suburban lives when Ben is laid off from his job as a loan officer at a bank. Kenny (Joshua Mark Sienkiewicz) and Sharon (Laura Friedmann), who are fresh out of rehab and trying to make ends meet, recently took over the vacant house next door. In a neighborhood development that prefers privacy fences to picket fences, the two couples overcome their isolation to form an unlikely bond, since each couple sees in the other an alternate vision of themselves. Kenny and Sharon see an opportunity to settle down, start over and finally get things right. Ben and Mary want to reject the conventions of polite society and embrace the present instead of worrying about the future.
Despite the show's title, D'Amour says Detroit isn't necessarily set in Detroit. The setting is actually ambiguous, and the play could be set in the first-ring suburb of any major American city. The title, she says, refers to an idea — the collapse of American industry and the fading notion of the American dream — that many people associate with the city of Detroit. Within that collapse exists the possibility, however slim, of renewal.
"I think it so accurately and deftly taps into what is so hysterically funny about our modern world, and how the things that we choose to make important today — like things and houses and stuff — are really meaningless," says Aimee Hayes, the play's director and Southern Rep's artistic director.
At Ashe, Hayes worked with scene designer Martin Andrew to recreate the couples' suburban backyards, and front row seats are planted in the grass on both sides of the lawn. To immerse audiences in the cramped suburban experience, the 90-minute show runs without an intermission.
"For me, being in suburbia is suffocating," Hayes says. "It makes me anxious; I feel so uncomfortable, and I think that is what we are trying to communicate. There's no distance between us and them."
D'Amour says her experiences growing up in New Orleans led her to seek inspiration in the people and places across America that other writers sometimes overlook. Her latest work, Airline Highway, follows the exploits of a group of downtrodden residents in a seedy New Orleans area motel. The show is currently running on Broadway and was nominated recently for four Tony Awards. D'Amour and frequent collaborator Katie Pearl also are working on a project called "Milton" that involves traveling to five small towns in America, all named Milton, where they engage with the locals to create performances based on their stories.
This fall, D'Amour and Pearl are planning to revive their art installation and performance piece How to Build a Forest at the Contemporary Arts Center, where a team of artists will create and destroy a dreamlike indoor forest. The work is meant to call attention to the fragile nature of the Louisiana landscape.
Despite her success in New York and beyond, D'Amour still calls New Orleans home, and she remains active in the local theater scene.
"I've always sat a little bit on the periphery from writers who write dinner party plays about New York City," D'Amour says. "I think there's this whole cross section of America that just wants to be seen, that isn't being represented in the mainstream. I'm interested in voices that aren't usually heard."