There’s nothing more terrifying for a young writer than to write her first review of a play when the director is a contributor to the same online publication. While any show Thom Schnarre is part of tends to turn out wonderfully, shit does happen, you know? So, a little nervous, I showed up at the Station with my notebook to take notes, and hoped and prayed that they show didn’t go badly.
Of course, my fears were ridiculous.
Written by Tracy Letts, Superior Donuts premiered in 2008 at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. The story centers on Arthur (Lincoln Machula), the owner of a donut shop in Chicago, and his employee Franco (William Anthony Sebastian Rose II). As the play unfolds, both Arthur and Franco make it clear there is more to their lives than they admit to just anyone. Arthur hides a conflicted past, from his experiences with the Vietnam War to the daughter he won’t talk about.
Unlike the reluctance Arthur shows to discuss his past, Franco is literally an open book, sharing with Arthur his manuscript, a novel titled America Will Be. Though separated by several generations and race, these two characters become friends who help each other get over their pasts to move into a more hopeful future.
The play itself is a comedy in the style of Norman Lear-era sitcoms from the ’70s, as it allows for the audience to “address taboo topics in our culture,” as Schnarre himself pointed out. The Superior Donuts shop of the title becomes a safe haven for all kinds of people hiding from aspects of their lives. Arthur’s soliloquies during the play are the only times the character can express feelings without stumbling. Lady Boyle, the resident alcoholic homeless woman played by Barbara Ridenour, finds a respite from the outside world in the shop, while Max, the Russian neighbor played by Thom Miller, seeks to buy the shop to achieve his American Dream.
The inside of the shop resembles that ’60/’70s nostalgia with its bright colors and old school telephones, while outside the harsh Chicago world is seen through the characters that drift in and out of the shop. Past and present, traditional and modern, acceptance and the hope for change constantly collide throughout the show.
While funny and light-hearted, the play provides a medium for discussing some seriously heavy issues. For example, while Nathon Jones’ character (a Chicago police officer) makes some funny racial jokes, racial tensions are seen throughout the show in a much more severe context. The harsh reality of being an African-American man living on the south side of Chicago is exemplified by the characters played by Rose and Dar’Keith Lofton, while Thom Miller and Maxwell Tomaszewski show the struggles an immigrant faces trying to become successful in a new country. All these conflicts are addressed with an element of humor by the actors, despite their serious nature.
What moved me the most about the production was the cast’s ability to make the audience empathize with such a wide range of characters. Lincoln Machula provides a relatively detached delivery that is only interrupted by a moment of such genuine emotion that you can’t help being moved. William Rose is easily the most versatile actor on the stage. In the first act, he sets up his character as an upbeat and optimistic dreamer, and yet there’s a distinct feeling that he’s using all that optimism to distract from his troubled past. The rest of the cast creates a strong support under the two main characters, giving life to smaller roles it would be easy to ignore; the performances of Nate Jones as a closet Trekkie and Nina Samii as a woman in love with a man unable to communicate are especially impressive.
Though there were some slight missteps; one of the joys of live theater is watching a skilled cast deal with these unexpected moments. Props getting put in the wrong place, pieces of the set falling down… If you’ve seen a play, you know what can happen. But none of these things stood in the way of this cast making Superior Donuts moving and hilarious. When a cast is talented enough, these mistakes are handled so gracefully they’re practically invisible; this cast definitely rises to that challenge. (In fact, I thought a couple of these “mistakes” were scripted because of the seamless way Nina Samii dealt with them, such as a banner falling in the middle of a fairly serious moment.)
Overall, despite the discussion of racial and social issues (and, come to think of it, maybe because of it), Superior Donuts is a play about hope. Hope lingers throughout, and the last lines of the show leave you with no doubt that these characters will survive. Sadly the play is only running for another week, from June 12–15 at the Station Theatre. It’s uplifting while making you aware, and it makes you think while still making you laugh. It is definitely worth the time to watch this highly professional cast tell a story anyone can relate to.
photos by Sean O’Connor