Detroit Review - A Play About Yesterday and Today

Sadly, Detroit, the place I frequently visit, has become a metaphor for deterioration. So it is in Detroit, the new play by Lisa D’Amour, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton featuring an all-ensemble cast including Kevin Anderson, Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Robert Breuler and Laurie Metcalf.  This premiere opens Steppenwolf Theatre’s new season. Martha Lavey, Artistic Director, introduces “Steppenwolf’s season-long conversation about Our Public/Private Self.”

Mary(Laurie Metcalf)unexpectedly comforts Sharon(Kate Arrington) as Kenny (Kevin Anderson) looks on

Detroit is compelling and thought provoking, sardonically humorous but not happy.  The set was very impressive and drew me into the action, while the characters were so powerfully portrayed they came home with me.  

Inspired by a New York Times article from October 19, 1997 that describes the 40 year lifespan of plywood in homes, the glue that dries, the walls that buckle, the houses that essentially fall apart, Lisa D’Amour weaves a story about the people living in homes in a first ring suburb.  We meet Mary (Laurie Metcalf) and Ben (Ian Barford) when they welcome their new neighbors, Sharon (Kate Arrington) and Kenny (Kevin Anderson) to the neighborhood at a barbecue in their backyard.  The situation feels like the suburbs; the backyard patio with a picnic table and umbrella, a large grill, a TV dish, and a sliding screen door that doesn’t work right.  Presenting their “public” selves, we learn that Mary is working as a paralegal, Ben worked at a bank and everyone was laid off but he is using his severance pay to establish a website and launch a consulting business.

The house next door has been vacant for a long time. Sharon and Kenny move into the house owned by Kenny’s uncle.  During dinner, they present their “public” selves, trying hard to say the right things and act the right way, but something is a bit off kilter. And we wonder what this will mean. And so begins a relationship, that in the end completely changes Mary and Ben’s life, and before long the “private” lives are revealed.

Mary(Laurie Metcalf), her foot healing and Ben(Ian Barford)with his leg caught

This takes place in a first ring suburb of Detroit but could be in the first ring suburb of any city.  These suburbs were noted in song and on TV. The perfect house and the perfect family were the promise of developments that sprang up in the time period between the end of WWII and the 1970’s.  

Kenny(Kevin Anderson)and Sharon(Kate Arrington) trying to make sense of their situation

At the end, Frank (Robert Breuler) Kenny’s uncle, observes the days depicted in TV sitcoms like Father Knows Best or the Dick van Dyke Show, showing all the fathers going to work at the same time and  then jointly returning home at 5:30 in time for children run and greet them and all was well.  Malvina Reynolds told it more truthfully when, in 1962, she described the “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky.  And they were made of ticky tacky and now these many years later, the houses and the dreams are crumbling.

Mary(Laurie Metcalf), Ben(Ian Barford)and Sharon(Kate Arrington) letting loose

Detroit reveals the private aspects of four of the residents of these suburbs, and the difficulties they experience. They tell their dreams showing their "private" selves. Along the way, we are left wondering where did the dream of the first ring suburbs go? How will the deterioration of these suburbs impact the dreams of our country?  What happened to those perfect children?  Is there hope?

Sharon(Kate Arrington),Ben (Ian Barford), Kenny(Kevin Anderson)Mary (Laurie Metcalf)when things are out of control

Detroit requires the viewer to think deeply and look in the mirror of reality. The deterioration of the first ring suburb is becoming very significant in our society and in Detroit, we have the opportunity to rethink the role of neighbors and the backyard barbecue. It is an important play for our time.

Frank(Robert Breuler)tells Mary(Laurie Metcalf)and Ben (Ian Barford)what it was like in the 1960's when his house was being built

Twenty $20 tickets are available at Audience Services beginning at 11:00 am on the day of each performance (1 pm for Sunday performances).  Half-price rush tickets are available one hour before each show.  Student discounts available.
Steppenwolf Theatre
1650 Halsted St.
Chicago, IL

Audience Services: 1650 N. Halsted St., 312-335-1650
Online ticketing available at
Accessible Performances:
Sign language interpreted performance: Sunday, October 17 at 7:30 pm
Audio described performance: Thursday, October 7 at 7:30 pm
Audio described performance with touch tour: Sunday, October 31 – 1:30 pm touch tour/3 pm curtain
Free post-show discussions, sponsored by AT&T, are offered after every performance. Participating in these discussions have been very rewarding to us and well worth arranging for additional time.

Photos: Michael Brosilow.

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