Another Portrait of “Our Suburb” – “Detroit” at Woolly Mammoth

We began last month with a workshop reading of Our Suburb at The Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival, as we contemplated Darrah Cloud’s portrait of Skokie, Illinois—a suburb butting up against the city of Chicago—during the 1970s. How interesting it was then for us a group to attend Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s production of Detroit last Thursday night.  The first irony being that the play’s not really about the city of Detroit at all, but a suburb of that fading, now-legally bankrupt metropolis.

Tim Getman, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Danny Gavigan and Emily Townley in "Detroit" (photo: Stan Barouh)

Tim Getman, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Danny Gavigan and Emily Townley in “Detroit” (photo: Stan Barouh)

Lisa D’Amour’s play is a revelation, despite it’s two conventional-seeming suburban home facades flanking both sides of the playing area; there’s very little that’s conventional about this play’s shrewd dramaturgy. The pace and theatrical intensity  keeps intensifying as the revelations of character inform an increasingly frenzied revving up of energy and desperation throughout the evening. We’re gonna hear from our student subscribers about their first-ever visit to Woolly, and the insights they took away from this production, and the moving post-show discussion that took place between Woolly “Connectivity” Director, Jocelyn Price, cast member Michael Willis (who, ironically, will be playing the butcher, Mr. Edelman, in Our Suburb) and the regional director of the Veterans Writing Project. That discussion, with insightful comments from veterans and wives in military families was a revelation as well. (Who knew that Mike Willis was a vet and Navy brat and that he lived on 14 different bases the first 15 years of his life?).  How important a service Woolly was providing by creating a space where vets could share thoughts with civilians–students, even–and reflect on the similarities between life on an army base and the lives of the two families we were seeing unfold on stage.

Here to get us started with reflections on Detroit is University of Michigan student, Joseph Chatham:

For me, “Detroit” was an exhilarating theatre-going experience. I enjoyed almost every aspect of it, from the pain and anger and defiance that Sharon and Kenny seemed to embody, to the nostalgia and the desire to begin again far away, to start over somewhere new, figuratively at least if not literally, that Ben and Mary conveyed, to the tired knowing that Frank seemed to emanate. The entire play, the dialogue, the scene transitions, everything, felt so organic that I almost felt as though I was there, as though I was observing a scene from my backyard as I watched two sets of my neighbors spin out, careening towards that great and terrible abyss of uncertainty and freedom that middle class life frequently seems to impel us to strive for. Even when some of the dialogue felt contrived, it still felt that it was meant to be that way, like it was knowingly mimicking the way that people often stumble verbally about, and thus I did not see it as a deficiency of the script, but rather as one of its triumphs, and felt as though it was relaying the complexity and foolishness that we as people also often relay.

The play itself also seemed to carry with it an overpowering feeling of nostalgia that I felt undergirded the entire production. From the very beginning, the idea that people do not relate to each other anymore, and even more significantly that they often seem to have no desire to do so anymore, struck me as an interesting and important one. I felt that it was an intriguing commentary on the way that our urbanized society has produced not more emotionally connected people, but rather more consciously distant persons, as though the fact that because everyone is now so physically close together they feel as though they have to strive to preserve some personal space for themselves, even if that does lead to them being alienated from those physically closest to them, their neighbors. In short, I greatly enjoyed “Detroit”, both because of the way that the characters were constructed and the emotions that they embodied, and because of the overall aura that the play seemed to give off, and feel that it continued to enhance my appreciation and understanding of theatre in D.C.

Check out the rest of student subscriber responses below in the comments section…


30 thoughts on “Another Portrait of “Our Suburb” – “Detroit” at Woolly Mammoth

  1. The symbolically named dark comedy DETROIT puts American suburbia under an intense microscope and offers a valuable commentary on the contemporary post-recession cynicism of many disgruntled young people and the nostalgia of the baby boomer generation (we saw this ironically manifested in the post-show discussion) in a provocative snapshot of the peril surrounding the American dream and the elements that have perniciously subverted its originally shaky precepts.

    We meet two couples—Mary and Ben, Kenny and Sharon—at the most iconic of suburban rituals, an outdoor cookout in a shared backyard. We are quickly enveloped in their milieu. It becomes quite easy to slowly detect each character’s motivations, limitations, and recent history yet writer Lisa D’Amour does not give away too much too fast. The surprising and incendiary resolution is quite authentic, something that could not be said of the gut-wrenching dancing. One couple is trying to move up and the other is clearly on its way down in what is an exploration and the subsequent eulogy of upward social mobility. Its complex disappearance in our society, whether it be up or down, is the new norm we are seeking to first battle and then internalize in our homogenous suburban enclaves; the denouement of DETROIT is indicative of this. Mary, Ben, Kenny, and Sharon all end up at “zero” by play’s end as they tried to build their new lives within a framework that destined them for failure. Their upward mobility was just a façade as they too ended up with no furniture, just like their neighbors.

    It was clearly something more than just companionship and an odd yet understandable desire to go camping that coaxed the couples out of their isolation. Anxiety –which is uniquely manifested in each character via falling off the wagon or longing to be British—most interestingly emanates from Mary, a disconcerted alcoholic paralegal whose husband Ben, ironically a former loan officer, struggles to start his own consulting website from home. Her anxiety is resemblant of many Americans’ anxiety about clinging to whatever economic rung they have gotten ahold of and not letting go—a once novel phenomenon in an era of G.I. bills, a strong social safety net, and rising middle class wages—that now is perceived as the commonplace reality in American suburbia. Perhaps I am being myopic and cynical, but have us young people experienced any other socio-economic climate? I think this is the case for me personally that at the conclusion of the production—despite the older man’s recollection of a happier time—I rhetorically asked myself “Yeah. So what?” The sobering political and social commentary the production elicits evoked these insights that surprisingly are removed from the unorthodox lighting, music, and special effects, a topic worth of a separate blog post in it of itself.

  2. Our Suburb and Detroit take a look at the stereotype of the American dream and the false idea that American suburbs are full of perfection and happiness. There is the belief that there are no conflicts or quarrels between neighbors. Everyone lives a calm and quiet life. Both of the plays approach the stereotype in different ways, as Our Suburb uses parallels to show similarities between two different families. Detroit uses the interactions between two couples to show connections, as they are both facing very similar problems.

    In Our Suburb, two families with different religious beliefs and different family structures are connected through their struggles, yet separated by a wooden fence. The play takes a look at self-harm, specifically alcoholism, and family issues. Mrs. Major struggles with alcoholism, as she turns to the bottle to deal with her husband’s degrading treatment. He views her as inferior and incapable of accomplishing anything outside of the home, and he makes it a point to ensure that she also understands his opinion.

    In Detroit, two couples that share a backyard in the suburbs come to realize that they actually have much more in common than the grass that grows between their yards. The couples are both dealing with economic hardship as a result of the recession. As the play develops, it becomes apparent that their struggles run deeper, as Sharon and Kenny have a background of drug abuse and Mary drinks heavily to deal with stress and her marriage problems.

    These performances give insight into the lives of suburban families, both past and present. However, it also says much more about our society. If the region that society assumes to be so perfect is truly this messed up, then what about the rest of society? Is there anyone or any area that has not been affected by mental illness or addiction? These plays bring a huge issue to the surface that not many people are comfortable discussing, or even thinking about. Because Our Suburb was a reading, I was unable to be as immersed in the experience as I was during the performance of Detroit. The lighting, set design, and special effects transformed the theatre into an American backyard. I felt like I was sitting in the yard next door, as the characters conversed, drank alcohol excessively, and even made a few life altering mistakes.

    Although both plays focus a great deal on destruction, there is also a theme of self-discovery and renewal. The American culture is full of toxins and evils, yet the ability to start over and find yourself is a constant reminder of the freedoms that still exist in our country.

    • Casey-

      I think you key in on a piece of social commentary that both productions stimulate: those that are more affluent and have a better socio-economic status are not immune to the ills of self-harm, alcohol abuse, and family problems.

      Mrs. Major turns to alcoholism to deal with her husband’s psychological abuse as does Mary to cope with her anxiety and lackluster marriage, far from being perfect. Both productions attack the idea that affluent American suburbs are immune to the self-harming ills that actually have the power to harm all, regardless of economic status. In our most recent political discourse, many have raised the point that more whites report using marijuana yet blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. These kinds of findings fuel our image of a squeaky-clean American suburbia that have been examined and questioned during our theater experiences this fall in D.C.

  3. One constant of humanity is our ability to be resilient. It is our ability to persevere under all conditions and against all odds, using our optimism to guide us along the way. This was a theme prevalent in the play Detroit directed by John Vreeke as we entered into the lives of two very different couples united by their universal struggles and their need to just make it through the days. As one family struggled with marital issues, beginning anew, and alcoholism and the other struggled with addiction, deception, and thievery, it was refreshing how these two families were able to rely on one another, providing the support the other needed to stay afloat. The universal theme of resilience is also applicable to the play Our Suburb as the audience is taken into the lives of two families struggling with issues of identity, growing older, death, and dealing with the past. This play highlights the daily struggles of familial life as we are able to get an inside glimpse into the private lives of the two families. Unlike in Detroit, however, in Our Suburb, the families seem to also be persevering, however they are having a much harder time, as loneliness seems to be a key hindrance for many of the characters.

    Resilience is a theme that all people can relate to. Just as common as the fact that people will always need to overcome hardships, is the fact that people can survive a multitude of hardships. One of my favorite scenes comes at the end of Detroit when Ben & Mary have lost everything because of their deceitful neighbors Kenny and Sharon, yet when asked about them, Ben and Mary reply that they were good people. This, to me, is extremely telling about these characters because even though Frank reveals the deception and all of the lies surrounding his nephew, Ben, Mary and the audience are still able to see them as decent human beings, relating to their struggles and understanding that Kenny and Sharon never ceased doing the best that they could with the little that they had. It is also in the ending scene, when Ben and Mary are deciding what to do with themselves, after losing everything in a fire, which seems the most hopeful scene in the entire play. When faced with possibly their greatest hardship yet, having nothing and no one but each other, I believe that these two characters are finally able to have a clean slate to obtain the life that they have always wanted. Even at their lowest, these characters are able to be resilient to what life has thrown at them.

    Although not in the initial script, this same theme is visually portrayed through the director’s choice to project images of the old-time, once thriving Detroit between the acts of the play. However, at the end of the play, conflicting images of the booming 20th century Detroit are shown, depicting the area as it stands today, dilapidated and abandoned, BUT still standing. I believe that people from Detroit, as ruined, as the city may seem, still have a sense of pride over their resilient area, optimistic that it will soon rise from the ashes.

    • Hey Khayla,

      I totally agree with the resilient factor of the play. Moreso, I agree with your perception of Mary and Ben at the end while they were standing in the midst of the rubble. I think that they really needed a fresh start and that their attempt to keep up their image hindered them in a way; I think that it got in the way of them understanding each other as husband and wife. So, oddly enough, I was relieved that this event happened to them. I think it brought them closer together. Although, I kind of wanted Mary to divorce Ben, if I were to be perfectly honest. I think an ending like that would have been more reflective of modern day suburbia and its struggles.

      • Khayla-

        I really resonated with the ending scene of Ben and Mary too. While I thought Kenny and Sharon were a bit sketchy to begin with, I was shocked to hear from Kenny …or Roger’s uncle just how many lies they were in fact telling. However, I think their characters taught and helped Ben and Mary so much. One of the most profound scenes to me -bizarre as it was- was when Mary was staring at the fires in the backyard and Sharon commented that it was “getting back to zero”. Thanks to Sharon and Kenny, Ben and Mary’s facade was finally let down and the two were finally able to be open and honest with one another. In losing all of their material possessions, they were actually able to gain an understanding of one another that far surpasses any material costs or objects.

  4. The set of “Detroit” at the Woolly Mammoth Theater was very different from the other plays I’ve been to. Instead of having a stage that faces to the audience, the stage was a strip in the middle with audience members on both sides. I didn’t like it very much in the beginning, because I saw the backs of the actors a lot, and it seemed to cause a lot of frenzied movement because both sides of the audience needed to be acknowledged. I did like that I was sitting very close to the stage, and it made me feel as if I were watching a very three-dimensional movie that was happening all around me. In the beginning, the theater acting (loud and projecting voices) seemed overdramatized and unnecessary, making the interactions seem insincere, but as the play went on relationships became more real and the actors threw themselves into their characters without holding anything back, and I was really captured by the drama and the lives of the Mary, Ben, Sharon, and Kenny.

    This production was special for military family, as the theater partners with the Veterans Writing Project. Although the play itself is about neighbors living in suburbia, and not about military life, it touches on many aspects that are similar, as discussed in the post-show discussion. One theme of the play is that when you have nothing, you can start new and the world is full of possibility. The two couples in the play were at first glance very different—one relatively successful, one recovering from rock bottom—but both couples reached that point, although at different times. This is similar to how the military functions, breaking everyone down to the same level only to build them back up to the same level. There also existed themes of violence and destruction, and a sense of displacement in place and mind. In the military, there is the violence of war, and in the play, the violence in burning Mary and Ben’s furniture and house. Families growing up dependent move around a lot, and children especially don’t have a place to call home or a personality that they can call their own. This is comparable to Sharon and Kenny’s lack of a house, and Ben’s struggle with his professional and personal identity. Overall, this play brought up many issues in society, including the breakdown of the suburbs over time, and I really enjoyed it.

  5. As of lately, the word ‘Detroit’ has become synonymous with pity, fragility, and lost hope. For what once use to be a thriving city–America’s ‘Motor City’–is now a bankrupt and nearly desolate pit. As such, I expected the play, “Detroit” by Lisa D’amour to focus on these depressing downfalls…but, to my great surprise, “Detroit” was almost the exact opposite! After spending an hour and a half of watching 5 brilliant actors and actresses take me through a rollercoaster ride of emotions, I left the theater feeling exhilarated! The themes in the play touched on the decline of community, household facades, starting from scratch, and many other aspects of the middle class today.

    Out of all of the themes though, I would have to say that the decline of community is the biggest and most obvious one. However, the commentary on household facades is the most interesting to me. In the play, the “happy” suburban couple –Mary and Ben–own a fully furnished home with a nice backyard patio, which their new neighbors –Sharon and Kenny–often visit for neighborly get togethers. In envisioning the 1950s-60s era, many neighborhoods had that “perfect” lifestyle that is portrayed in the beginning scene of “Detroit.” The facade, however, is revealed when Mary and Ben attempt to fix their patio umbrella and claim that it’s from a bargain store. As the play progresses, the audience sees Mary and Ben’s marriage struggling to survive their financial challenges since Ben had been laid off from work. Despite these difficulties, Mary and Ben continue to try and present an untroubled marriage. For example, after having known Sharon and Kenny for a while, Mary and Ben invite them over for dinner wherein Mary feeds them gourmet food. To some extent, this facade represents all of the struggling individuals who may have the mindset that “I may not be doing well, but I’m still doing better than you.” As such, the theme of a decline in community presents itself.

    As the middle class starts to disintegrate, a competitive atmosphere amongst neighbors has seemingly increased. Less people are more willing to go next door to borrow sugar or converse with a new neighbor –as Sharon points out–because we as a society have conditioned ourselves to think of our neighbors as competitors instead of partners. Mary implicitly makes this point when she’s telling Sharon about “Joe Blow” down the street competing with Ben for the next job because Ben has yet to complete his website. Later on, however, Ben drunkenly reveals to Mary that he never made a website. To make matters worse, Kenny lights Mary and Ben’s house on fire and destroys everything that they have. Thus, much like Sharon and Kenny (who did not own a single piece of furniture), Mary and Ben now had nothing as well. And in the midst of losing everything and starting over, I felt as though Mary and Ben were finally able to really know and understand each other, which seemed to be a problem in their relationship. At least with Sharon and Kenny, despite their prior addictions and incessant lying, they seemed to truly understand and love each other unconditionally.

    Overall, this play showed that no matter what status you have, no one is perfect and that behind closed doors everyone has their own issues. Moreover, neighbors, regardless of their status or history, can still be there to help you as long as you reach out and make that connection with them.

    • Dominique – I like what you say here about the idea of “I may not be doing well, but I am still doing better than you”, and how this affects how one interacts within a community. I think this mindset is what draws a person into himself where he puts walls up so that others cannot get too close, for once they do, they will see that he is not all that he looks to be. This is exactly what Sharon refers to in her rant in the beginning about the emotional distance of neighbors and friends, and the lack of community that she and Kenny had experienced as a couple (and what a lot of us experience today!). However, I do not believe that Mary and Ben are ever fully broken down to the point of letting Kenny and Sharon see the true financial brokenness in their lives until possibly the very end. At this point, they experience the community that comes with an open and honest relationship, though the relationship is quickly destroyed with the fire.

    • It’s interesting that at first everyone probably thought that Sharon and Kenny were the “problem” couple as we discover their drug addiction. But we soon find out that Ben and Mary are far less than perfect as Mary is an alcoholic and Ben has a hard time starting starting his own business. I completely agree with you that despite Sharon and Kenny’s prior addictions and incessant lying, they seemed to truly understand and love each other unconditionally. Perhaps that is part of the reason Mary and Ben said near the end of the play that “they are not bad people” even though they burned their house down. In many ways, Sharon and Kenny seemed less pretentious and expressed more true feelings in the play. They were open about their addiction and how they struggled to overcome it which earned sympathy and trust from Mary especially. Because Sharon and Kenny were honest, Mary and Ben felt like they had real friends.

    • Hi Dominique – I really liked your comment on household facades, and felt that it certainly applied to the play, but that beyond it as well, across neighborhoods all around the nation. It is especially interesting to me as it was not an idea that occurred to me right away, though as you point out it is a fairly obvious theme, and thus I did not think about how “Detroit” deftly mirrored that aspect of real-life, in addition to all of the other aspects which it recreated so successfully. Additionally, I felt that your comment on the emergence of a competitive environment during times of economic duress, such as what the United States has experienced the last several years, was very pertinent and that it helps to make the play much more complete when attempting to understand it in that context.

  6. As I watched Ben and Mary’s house and furniture disintegrate in the flames, I saw the couple grounded, separated from their material possessions and left only with each other. For Kenny and Sharon, the same was true, though for them this separation from their possessions had occurred much earlier. For me, watching these character’s connections with their material goods was important in their worldviews and the choices they made. Mary’s decisions, especially, were motivated by a desire to acquire more “stuff,”—a new plastic tablecloth outdoors, a new coffee table, or simply making more money than the guy down the street creating his own website. This desire for a new coffee table shaped Mary’s decision to give up the one in her house to her new neighbors, an act that, from the surface, appeared generous but was instead embedded with self-serving motives.
    For Ben and Mary, then, there was always a tension that stemmed from wanting something new or something more or something that might boost their image. Is this something that Kenny and Sharon had already moved past? Though they had absolutely nothing, there was a calm within their relationship that went above their lack of possessions. When the house went up in flames, Ben and Mary’s image burned also—they could no longer rely on material things to provide them with an identity. The same sort of calm, cool understanding between Kenny and Sharon was then present in Ben and Mary.
    Whether done purposely or not, this play was reflective of Detroit as a city. Having once been one of the largest industrial and most successful cities in the United States, it now can largely only brag of crime and loss and devastation. What changes in us when we move from having everything to having nothing? I think the play reminded us of one thing for certain—we are drawn more into the community around us to help pick us back up after we have fallen. Sometimes, it is even the new neighbors that we hardly know. Ben and Mary tried to help Kenny and Sharon get back on their feet, and Frank did the same for Ben and Mary at the end. We are joined together with other humans more intimately when we have nothing to give, and that was a beautiful picture that was painted in this play.

    • Madison, I love the way you looked at the characters’ attachments to objects. Our culture is so focused on obtaining physical items to show our wealth or our accomplishments. It is shown in advertisements, magazines, and various forms of entertainment. Children are raised to think of objects as their goals, as they play sports for trophies and get good grades so they can be rewarded with candy. So many people need objects to find themselves, when in actuality, letting go of the objects and lessening the load allows us to find ourselves. Having nothing forces a person to look inside and muster all of the strength and courage that he or she can manage. It’s not longer about the designer handbag or luxury vehicle – it’s about the ability to deal with a challenge and move forward.

    • Hey Madison, I think your comment is very interesting. I wonder if naming this play ‘Detroit’ had something to do with this idea of starting with nothing. Since Detroit is considered to be one of the most run down cities in the country right now, the play may have been meant to bring hope to those looking at the story of Detroit. Perhaps now that it has so little to give it can start over new. One thing that I wonder about is who will help Detroit? There were politicians who have wanted to let Detroit go under, and it is, in fact, bankrupt. Is Detroit meant to be represented by Sharon and Kenny? Two people with a dark past trying to get by? They weren’t given very much help. They were squatters in Kenny’s uncle’s house. The uncle didn’t want to ‘open the can of worms’ by saying they could have a fresh start and stay in the house. Has this been the case for Detroit? Has anyone helped Detroit for unselfish reasons? Or has all the help come from self-centered reasons like Mary giving up the coffee table?

  7. Sharon and Kenny were complex characters. It was an interesting dynamic to see them in relation to Ben and Mary. While Ben and Mary might have seemed like the ‘better couple’ by society, there were parts of the play that made it look like Sharon and Kenny had a lot to teach them. Sharon and Kenny seemed like they had figured out parts of life that Ben and Mary hadn’t quite processed yet. When Sharon asked a question to the effect of ‘do you feel like you are building a house or a twig floating down a river?’ I knew that she had done some thinking about what it means to be a person in society. It may have just been the fact that she had struggled with drugs herself, but Sharon’s capacity to bring a drinking problem to the attention of Mary was impressive. Kenny was also a great character. Kenny was fantastic at diffusing potentially volatile situations. I don’t think he could have handled Sharon and Ben’s hookup any better. He was able to recognize the situation for what it was – drunken lust – and keep himself and Mary from being too upset.
    Both characters seemed to have a deep understanding for the way that people function in society. I think much of that is attributable to their drug use and knowing what rock bottom looks like. There is a certain level of understanding that results from the perspective of looking up from the bottom. From what I get out of the play, there is something to be said about deliberately building your life and relationships. That’s what it looked like Kenny and Sharon were doing, deliberately building their lives from rock bottom. Ben and Mary seemed to be twigs floating in a river. They didn’t seem to have much agency; they were just running through the motions of what is supposed to come next. The end of this play was the hardest to deal with, when the uncle questioned Ben and Mary’s evaluation of the other couple as “good people.” I hope that someone can speak to that in response to this comment.

    • Like you, I felt a bit disheartened about the uncle’s reaction to Kenny and Sharon. Yet, I wonder if he felt that watching them go through rehab (possibly multiple times) and watching him try and fail in other areas of his life may have proved painful to him. Maybe, “not caring” seemed easier and, perhaps, he felt that nothing would change. He seemed very weary and I would assume that there’s much we don’t know. Regardless, I too wish he had reacted differently. Additionally, I found it interesting that he advocated being a “good neighbor” yet faced struggles within his own family that he seemed unwilling to face– ones that may have been helped with more and better communication.

  8. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, so I was curious to see how the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s production of Detroit would portray my home. Sitting in the front row in such a unique theater made the experience more authentic, like I was a bystander to four real lives. It was easy to forget that it was just a play when I was arms length away from the actors expressing such raw emotion. Gabriela Fernàndez-Coffey, Danny Gavigan, Tim Getman, and Emily K. Townley were essential in making the play the success that it is.
    Now that I have had some time to process the play, I found it was very similar to my hometown. Similar to the beginning of the play, my family does not know our neighbors, we just watch them come and go out of their garage. I would sooner go to the CVS located just outside the subdivision before I asked these mysterious people for a cup of sugar. By simply looking at our houses next to each other, you can tell our families are different. My yard has flowers, a swing set, and an American flag hanging off the garage. Their yard has weeds, over grown grass, and plywood over the door where a deck is supposed to go. I found it amusing when Mary was so upset that her neighbors did not have furniture, because it sounded like my mom complaining about my neighbor’s non-existent deck. Our houses are exactly like the opposing houses in the play, but our families have not tried to form a relationship like Mary, Ben, Sharon, and Kenny did. We are more like the neighbors Sharon describes in her rant, the type that wave hello as we rush into the house.
    I also thought about the stories my grandma has told me about growing up in the city of Detroit. She talked about all the neighborhood kids playing together outside and the cookouts they used to have. It was exactly as Frank described at the end of the play, when neighbors were friends, not simply acquaintances.
    Going into the play, I would have told you that Detroit is run down, but it is making a come back; us Detroiters are hopeful that the bankruptcy will create a fresh start. What I never realized before is that our suburbs are broken too. This play caused me to realize that we no longer share the bond of homeownership with those who purchase the lot next to us: maybe it is because people no longer glorify buying a home or because we are all so busy with our fast-paced lives that we don’t take time to hangout in the yard. No matter the reason, neighbors are no longer an important part in homeowner’s lives.
    I enjoyed the show because it was an outside perspective of my childhood. I pointed out the negative aspects of our changing society, but in a humorous way. It allows the viewers to enjoy the show in the moment, but it also causes us to reflect about what is happening to our society. I think the play was a perfect mixture of current American issues and entertainment.

    • Although not in Detroit, I also grew up in the suburbs where most of the people don’t interact. Growing up, my neighborhood was filled with kids who went to my same elementary and middle school, but I rarely interacted with them outside of school. In the past, these kids probably would have been my best friends, with all of the neighborhood kids playing together until nightfall when their parents would call them in. I used to wish I had grown up in a small town where everyone knew each other, but I think I just longed for the connections with neighbors that seem to be lacking in our generation. It was very refreshing to see the two couples in “Detroit” try to connect, even though they were very different people.

  9. On May 9th, 2006, I came downstairs to find my mother on the floor, screaming. At the time, the words were indistinguishable but I soon learned that my dearest Uncle had died. At the time, this seemed impossible to me—I had seen him just a few short months earlier. He had been energetic, enthusiastic and warm as always. He’d spent time showing me the city and teaching me how chocolate kisses gained their name (it’s because the sound they make when they come off the conveyer sounds like a kiss). As I and my mother learned that night, my uncle had been struggling with severe depression for years—and, despite what he had told my mother, he hadn’t been getting help. Of the entire family, one person knew of this. You see, often times my family’s method in avoiding conflict lies in sweeping it under the rug. While they are a loving bunch, their pride doesn’t allow them to deal with stigma well and often times prevents them from communicating when they need help.
    So, when I heard Sharon talk about the idea of a “neighbor”; when I watched her struggle to share her inner demons with the people next door; and, when I heard Kenny advise her not to share details of their past, I immediately felt a deep resonance with her character. In some ways, being depressed carries the same challenges as recovering from a drug addiction. Many days are marked by the struggle to simply get through them. Getting up, getting dressed, making food were all great achievements—and doing them with a smile often felt impossible. To add to this Sharon felt, even with the typical support system (i.e. a rehabilitation group), that she didn’t have the support she needed. In some ways, it was so nice to see that she found that in some form with Mary. At the same time, it made me consider what was most important to communicate. Though Sharon turned out to be someone completely different, at least superficially, Mary still felt as if she knew her. Their conversations, despite leaving out choice details, were genuine— all four characters (though perhaps Kenny the least) revealing parts of their struggles to another character.
    Finally, I considered “fresh starts” which seemed to be another theme to the story—for Mary and Ben, it took place at the end; and for Sharon and Kenny, it seemed to take place in the beginning. In some ways, the presence of Sharon and Kenny enacted a great change for Mary and Ben. It freed them to strive for something more than live in Suburbia which they found themselves trapped in. In some ways, my uncle’s death also freed my family. Though, I wish we hadn’t lost him every day, I found myself pushing for change in my family and in myself. I seriously analyzed what was important to communicate and when. I thought about the many ways people reach out for support and I strived to understand depression and discourage the development of stigma when I saw it. Since that time, I have discovered another person I care deeply about is fighting the battle my uncle fought. Supporting him, in the best way I can, isn’t always easy. There are times when I feel hopeless that it may never end; there are some times when I lack understanding—like Frank in the end. Even so, I had to wonder how Sharon and Kenny’s situations may have been different if Frank had given them one more chance or supported them differently. There is always that sense of “What if?”. Yet, the ending wasn’t all disheartening—sometimes “what ifs” can be good. Perhaps Ben and Mary’s “what if”, their new beginning, will lead them to a better place.

  10. When I heard we were going to see a play entitled “Detroit” I instantly became intrigued. I have a slight fascination with the “motor city” a city once thriving with industry, economic capital and even the birth of Motown, now commonly referred to as a “ghost town” with real estate on the market for thousands and some times even mere hundreds of dollars. I assumed the play might detail the tragic decline of the once thriving city, so I was caught a bit off guard but very pleasantly surprised as I watched the play that detailed the growth of a relationship between two groups of seemingly different neighbors in a Detroit suburb.

    Ben and Mary at first glance represented the quintessential middle class family. The couple appeared put together, worldly and inviting. Dissimilarly, their neighbors Sharon and Kenny were almost unkempt, a bit frazzled and looked out of place in Ben and Mary’s manicured back yard. While superficially the two couples did not look compatible as friends, it did not surprise me to learn that the two couples were much more similar than one would think. I probably wasn’t so surprised because as I was taking in the set I noticed that Ben and Mary’s patio furniture did not match – a very small detail, that may have gone unnoticed to most people- however that detail alone implied that Ben and Mary may not have been as together as they appeared. Much like other middle class families, Ben and Mary lived comfortably enough to afford them certain amenities such as steak and health insurance – but with very little to spare for unnecessary luxuries –such as matching undiscounted patio furniture, an ascetically pleasing coffee table or caviar. While there are moments in the play that suggest that Ben and Mary considered themselves superior to their junky neighbors –like the concern and skeptism Mary displays when she realizes her neighbors have no furniture- it takes Sharon and Kenny honest, unapologetic and real to help crumble the façade that was Ben and Mary’s life. Culminating with a backyard bonfire –getting back to zero- and the losing of Ben and Mary’s house and life brings the couple to their most honest and pure moment, for the first time in the entire play all of the couple’s “dirty laundry” and innermost desires and thoughts are finally laid on the table allowing the couple to see each other for who they really are thanks to their neighbors Sharon and Kenny.
    Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” is a testament to middle class, American life. It picks at how the bubble of security and comfort brought on by being a part of the middle class is being penetrated. As economic times are changing and worsening for the middle class, how facades are constructed to hold on to some of the prestige and comfort that was once attributed to middle class life. D’Amour’s work also illustrates the importance of community, and how unlikely companions may be the ones to bring out the truth in us.

    • Sunny,
      I love your comment about unlikely companions bringing out the truth in us. I think this really captures the experience between Mary, Ben, Sharon and Kenny. I find it so interesting how much Ben and Mary discovered about themselves, or were willing to admit to themselves, after meeting the other couple. I like that they became more honest with themselves and with each other towards the end. They were given the opportunity to explore their desires, their relationship with one another, their flaws and so on. Although much of the life they knew prior to meeting each other, was in may ways destroyed, their dishonesty and much of their fear to change and to be open and spontaneous was also sort of destroyed. I think in many ways Ben and Mary became more honest, and better people overall.

    • I also thought that Detroit would be about the decline of the city. I assumed that the play would be another piece in an art movement currently thriving in Detroit called “ruins porn”. “Ruins porn” is the exploitation of run down buildings and landscapes through art, especially photography. Similar to many people, I believe it enhances the negative publicity of Detroit shown by the media; therefore I was happy that this was not the case.

      I really enjoyed your analysis of Ben and Mary, because I did not notice their mismatched furniture, nor it’s symbolism of Ben and Mary’s life. I liked how you used your thoughts on the couple to show that the play is a testament to the crumbling middle class. I really enjoyed when you said “…how facades are constructed to hold on to some of the prestige and comfort that was once attributed to middle class life.” I took away a similar message from the play and it has caused me to think a lot about what is happening to our middle class in America.

  11. Some may complain that the play lacks closure but I think the lack of closure accentuates the theme of falling out from the American Dream. After the house was burnt down, Sharon and Kenny simply disappeared off the stage, leaving the audience wondering what happened to them afterwards as we anticipate their return. But the problematic couple does not appear on stage again and this becomes almost the anti-climax of the play. We do not know whether the couple is repenting for what they did; whether Sharon finishes the online courses she wanted to take; whether the couple is off drugs for good, where they are staying and whether they are living a better life like they said they would strive for. But in a way, the lack of closure embodies the collapse of the American dream. Throughout the play, we see characters aspire to strive for better living, or at least, a pretense of better living. When the couple Ben and Mary invites their new neighbors over to dine with them, Mary went out of her way to prepare a very sophisticated and quaint dish that included imported caviar, cheese and special pink salt. As she tries to impress her neighbors, we witness the awkward interactions between these strangers. Their forced laughter and disconnected conversations reflects their discomfort and insecurity.

    Sharon and Kenny’s escape in the end reminds the audience of the reality that not all stories have happy endings. Not all people confront their problems and find solutions. But we can also sense that during the night of chaos, the two couples enjoyed a sense of freedom that they had not ever dare to experience and express. The night was a complete liberation of their thoughts as they unveiled many secrets such as Ben not having an online business and being secretly wishing that he was British; Mary not being content with her relationship and her life. Rather than pretending to be people they’re not, they let down their guard and insecurity, and found a mutual level of comfort. So rather than continuing to live in a life of lies and compromises, the couple confronted each other about the truth and as Sharon says, “start from zero.” Indeed, at the end of the play, it does seem like Ben and Mary has rebuilt their relationship. They do not seem to be mad at each other as they salvage what’s left of the house together. Mary does not mention anything about Ben not having an online business. She even proposed to move to Britain like Ben had always wanted. This shows that after the chaotic night, the couple may have become closer with each other as they now understand how the other really feels.

    • Amie–

      I really like what you say about the ending scene portraying a fall from the American Dream. This fall from the American Dream can also been seen by the play’s setting in Detroit, a once booming metropolis home to iconic music, entertainment, sports, and tourism, but now, in comparison, it is seemingly little more than a ghost town.

      I would argue though that the play did have closure. In fact, in my opinion the end was the most hopeful because it provided both couples with a sense of newfound freedom and honesty. It provided Ben and Mary with the opportunity to finally be completely honest and completely vulnerable with each other. Sharon and Kenny allowed Ben and Mary to see another, more honest side of one another, thus allowing them to break down their facade and be free. This to me, was the closure of the play since the couple finally had a completely clean slate, able to start over, doing it the way that they wanted this time.

  12. Detroit was actually my favorite play we have seen as a class thus far. It was really interesting to see the lives of two very polar couples collide- and the impact that collision created, which resulted in things both good and bad. At the onset of the play, you can tell that Mary and Ben are meant to be the perfect couple and family. Yet their desperation to appear perfect in front of Kenny and Sharon shows in almost every sentence spoken and every awkward, rushed movement that seems to inevitably end in something crashing to the floor. The awkwardness between the couples is almost painful- about as painful as witnessing Mary and Ben struggle to keep their economic woes, alcoholism and unemployment to themselves. Regardless of their attempt to hide these things, their flaws always end up exposed, making them increasingly similar to Kenny and Sharon, who are still struggling with drug addiction and poverty. My mental analysis of the couples’ interaction that began to form as the play progressed, focused on the emerging similarities between those four- rather than their differences. I started to wonder were Kenny and Sharon good influences on Ben and Mary, as they were becoming more honest about their flaws, more forthcoming about their dreams and aspirations, and more willing to live outside of the very restricting boundaries of the imposed American idea of normalcy. John Vreeke and Lisa D’Amour choose to end the play in a very bleak way, with Ben and Mary’s home literally going up in flames. This near dismal ending seemed to suggest that perhaps the spontaneity and uninhibited nature of Sharon and Kenny are dangerous- and result in destruction. But I found some positivity in the destruction of this pseudo perfect couple. They were living an unhappy life, too scared to live it any differently, too scared to make changes or explore other options. Kenny and Sharon seemed to encourage the possibility of living freely, and uninfluenced by the rest of society.

    My critique however, is that while Detroit addresses the downward “slide” of suburban communities, this was the only community on which the play focused. When I hear the name Detroit, I immediately think of inner-cities and people of color affected by extreme poverty in these areas. I think it would be more timely and relevant to focus on communities that are more vulnerable to the economic changes happening in Detroit. While the state of the middle class continues to be a major concern in the American political sphere, I think a look at inner city, under resourced communities of color would be a more honest and look at the current state of Detroit—and it would also provide us with a starting point for reformation. Notwithstanding, Detroit was awesome. I truly, truly enjoyed it.

    • DETROIT was one of the most stimulating plays that I have experienced thus far. It was like watching an action movie, always thrillingly gripping in some sort of way. The two couples brought out humor in the writing, hiding pains and frustrations. It kept you on your feet, it kept you speculating, it kept you looking and anticipating all without any intermission. The students from all over were tuned in to the stage as if it were Scandal or True Blood.
      I do agree with Asha regarding the verisimilitude of the play. As far as the demographics of the ethnicities that were disparately impacted by the housing crisis in Detroit, African Americans had seemingly no connection with the play. When I think of Detroit as a student, I think of the alarming statistics caused by a poverty stricken community with little hope in rebuilding a better future. This play gave me more hope and options than the statistics show for the many communities of color in that dismal region of our nation.

    • Asha I really enjoyed your comment and I had a similar critique of the play. When I picture Detroit, I don’t picture the suburban communities surrounding the city that was displayed in the play. That is Metro-Detroit. In Detroit, the inner city communities face similar economic and more extreme problems, but the communities are tighter knit. People greet you on the street and aren’t always as stranger as people are in the suburbs of Detroit. It’s easier to approach people in your community within the city than it is to approach people in a Metro-Detroit suburb. Yet, Detroit was still the name of the play. Thus, I too believe the title was a bit misleading, because the narrative of the story really speaks more to the suburban, middle class ring surrounding the city instead of life in the inner city, poverty stricken, yet tightly knit communities.

  13. The play not only depicts human behavior and the expression of ones personality, but also when going bankrupt. Bankrupt not in the denotation it self, however the metaphorical domains of what it means for a family, pre-children, going broke in the face of poverty. It was describing people’s lives with the looming threat of loosing their space and possessions. These material objects and structures act as shells holding their pride, identity, and status. They venture into nature for peace, place and the soil of earth to regain what the fear they are missing, trying to fill in the void of lost dreams. They just want to revert to simple things in life, openness and euphoria. Both of the families were stricken with shared gazes of lust and repression. The nudity and sexual expressions in the play focused the eyes of the audience to seriously immerse you in the mindsets of the thrill seeking characters. The way in which the set was structured and designed made me feel apart of the milieu. I was also able to look at the audience sitting parallel to our row. Seeing their body language react to the actors and actresses allows one to appreciate the theatre. Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company has reorganised your play watching experience outside of the conventional stage to audience set up.
    I respect the play for its savvy persuasion in multiple aspects. The two couples slowly unravel their deepest anxieties and desires with one another—complete strangers. They express their emotions in moments of confusion, sorrow, and general support in working trough their issues. In a play, you may individually experience a common laugh, sigh, or groan, which are the ways theatre connect each audience member together. DETROIT, positioned my gaze to the stage of the play, but also the opposite seats and the occupying faces of strangers. These audience members who I noticed were physically paralleling my reactions, a cover of the mouth, a dropped jaw, or a head turn-around to check if you were the only way who heard that line, created the relationship of the two couples. To the audience, the backyard that connected Mary and Ben’s and Kenny and Sharon’s houses became the actual stage.
    The experience was highly gratifying for me. The feeling of starting from the bottom, destruction and construction, and rebirth from the ashes, stylishly portrays hope and the human push to go on and live out dreams. When having the post-discussion afterwards, it was interesting to see how the play related to the emotions articulated by families growing up in the military. It was expressed that many youth in this transient situation naturally become actors given their rapidly changing environments.

  14. I have an unusual take on “Detroit.” As I was listening to the post-play discussion, trying to make sense of what I had just seen, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the story of “Detroit” was in some way familiar to me. The post-play discussion, much like many of the responses on this blog, focused on the dark humor of the play and the seemingly helpless portrayal of the decline of the “American Dream.” While I agree that “Detroit” could unquestionably be interpreted as a depiction of the loss of an American Dream (and was probably written to be interpreted in this way), it evoked a much different reaction from me. When I think of a decline from the American Dream (or whatever language you use to describe the hope of financial success and independence associated with American cities/suburbs) I think of adjectives like bleak, depressing, lifeless, etc. “Detroit” brought a different set of adjectives to my head. Thrilling. Exhilarating. Destructive.

    I will argue that the story “Detroit” is in many essential ways similar to the story of one of my favorite movies, “Fight Club.” “Fight Club” is the story of a young, middle-class American man who struggles with the apparent meaningless of the rituals that surround his every day life. When he befriends Tyler Durden, a reckless, aggressive visionary, the man begins to reject the societal norms and expectations that once dominated his life. In one of the movie’s major themes, Tyler says, “It is only after we’ve lost everything that we are free to do anything.” Yet this freedom is not without cost, and an irony of “Fight Club” is that the man eventually becomes a slave to the behaviors he believed he needed to truly experience freedom.

    In “Detroit,” we see similar themes. The married couple, Mary and Ben, appears to be fine, well-adjusted members of society, but it only takes a little bit of digging to see the fault lines of deep discontent in their relationship and in their own selves as well as their coexistence in an existential crisis. The more they confide in their new wildcard neighbors, Sharon and Kenny, the closer and closer they become to each other and the truth of the state of their own lives. The play culminates in one wild, careless, exhilarating night. Mary and Ben abandon all reservations and experience freedom in a way that is total and complete: Ben confesses his most personal secrets to Mary, Mary accepts Ben and relinquishes control, and they both indulge in kind of sexual freedom previously unthought of. Just like in “Fight Club,” however, the thrill of absolute freedom ultimately contributes to a downfall. Their embrace of life, the night, and the moment is what prevents them from extinguishing the flames that engulf their house. While it was Kenny who actually threw the torch, it may as well have Ben—or Mary.

    When the dust settles and the morning comes, Mary and Ben aren’t sure what to make of the deception from their “neighbors.” When asked about Kenny and Sharon, Ben says, “they were good people.” “They burned your house down,” their true neighbor dryly retorts. True—Kenny and Sharon did burn the house down. But they also burned down many of the barriers that inhibited Mary and Ben’s relationship and their lives. At the end of the play, Mary and Ben are left confused at what just happened to them, confronted with the reality that Ben has no start-up business, and now utterly alone without Sharon and Kenny. And yet there exists a twinge of optimism, of starting fresh, as Mary and Ben talk of their daydreams of moving to Britain. This twinge of optimism, I believe, is vastly superior to the manufactured contentedness that exists at the beginning of the play.

  15. Upon arriving to the Wolly Mammoth, I was expecting to see a play that portrayed the city of Detroit in a negative light. As both a metro-Detroiter and an avid volunteer in the city, I am always skeptic of how the city that I have such strong ties to and love so dearly is going to be portrayed. Recently in the media, it’s been anything but positive, and I was afraid this play was going to be too. Yet, it was nothing that I had expected. Walking into the theater and just seeing the set design proved all of my previous judgments to be wrong. The play captured themes that more than just Detroiters can relate to, this loss of neighborhood spirit and coping with economic problems, regular problems that millions of Americans across the nation face on the daily. With its decrepit buildings and struggling economy, Detroit is often used as a symbol for the economic downturn our nation has encountered recently. Yet, everyone also views Detroit in this way in an isolated manner, like “oh this won’t happen us!” But Lisa D’Amour counters this perspective. She takes the obvious, visible problems of Detroit, captures them, and then applies them to problems that every American can relate to, problems that may not be as obvious as the ones Detroit face, but that still lie beneath the surface. I found this notion comparable to the character interactions between the two couples in Detroit. While Sharon & Kenny come off as suspicious and somewhat shady characters on the surface in the beginning of the play, it is Ben and Mary who struggle with similar problems yet underneath. This to me was a brilliant concept that relates to both the plot and current problems that cities face. They may not be completely visible as the problems in Detroit, but they are still there, hiding beneath the surface.

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