The American Dream in Flames

Lisa D'Amour's "Detroit" takes on the disintegration of the middle-class American Dream, the ravages of urban neglect and white flight to the suburbs in this Motor City fable of two families on the verge of eruption.

1Photo courtesy of the Jungle Theater

Detroit, a play by Lisa D’Amour now showing at The Jungle Theatre, sets fire to the American Dream. The densely layered work, set in a first-ring suburb of Detroit, calls into question our core values as a society. The script pits two troubled couples against one other, each clamoring to make sense of their existence in a world that’s falling apart. When I spoke with director Joel Sass at the opening, he commented that, in some ways, though the play is nominally set in Detroit, it’s a story that could have just as easily been situated in Roseville or Eden Prairie. He’s right: there’s a certain anonymity common to all inner ring suburban neighborhoods. And D’Amour’s Detroit is a plausible proxy for all those bedroom communities around the country where people have moved in search of “better lives” for themselves and their families.

On the other hand, she did name the play after the famed Michigan city, and that setting inevitably carries with it certain connotations particular to the city’s past and present. And these days, Detroit is struggling to overcome years of disinvestment and dwindling population. I visited the city last fall and couldn’t believe how deserted it was. There’s graffiti and blight everywhere; the streetlights don’t work. I saw abandoned buildings throughout the city — tall high-rises with empty windows that allowed the light to shine right through. The place is rife with contradictions, filled with grandiosity and decay in equal measure. Looking around, I thought to myself: I have come to the fall of Rome.

Detroit is also a city that is 11 percent white, according to the U.S. census, and 83 percent African American. Compare that urban core ratio to the greater metro area count, including the surrounding suburbs, and the numbers flip: just 24 percent of the whole metro was African American at the time of the 2010 census. To be clear, in D’Amour’s play, there are no African American characters, but that doesn’t mean that race isn’t a predominant theme. To the contrary, while the script only mentions race once — when Anna Sundberg’s character, Sharon, jokingly serves “white-trash” snacks — the story is set against the backdrop of a half-century of white flight out of the Motor City and other urban centers across the country following World War II.

Using Detroit’s deterioration as a metaphor for nationwide urban trends, the play shows us a world where everything is falling apart, but on a human scale: At Mary and Ben’s (Angela Timberman and John Middleton) place, nothing quite works as it should: the canopy for the patio table doesn’t open and neither does the sliding door. And it’s not just the house: Mary herself can’t walk because of a wart she’s recently had removed.

Using Detroit’s deterioration as a metaphor for nationwide urban trends, the play shows us a world where everything is falling apart, but on a human scale.

“[All this] reminds us of our general ideas about the death of the American Dream, about white flight, about the death of manufacturing, and so forth,” D’Amour said in an interview for Theater Jones. “I’m not from Detroit, and I feel I titled the play very much as an outsider. People in Detroit have a much more specific knowledge of what it means to live there.”

I suspect folks in Detroit don’t much like their city being used as a metaphor in that way.  When I was there, the Detroiters I met were far more inclined to defend their hometown, to focus on the positive — I kept hearing about how the city was making a comeback. When I took pictures in the half-empty neighborhoods around town, I was chided for shooting “ruin porn,” a term I had never heard before my visit there. Understandably, no city wants to be mocked or gawked at for their troubles, but you can’t get around the fact that Detroit serves as an example to other cities of what not to do.

Detroit has one train that travels in a small radius around downtown. Otherwise known as “The People Mover,” this route encircling the urban core was initially designed to be the center of a much larger network of railways that would connect up with the city’s more far-flung neighborhoods and reach out into the suburbs. But that never happened. Instead, downtown Detroit was effectively isolated from the rest of the metro, confined by the highways that effectively separate its haves and have-nots.

Throughout the play, the character of Mary talks about getting out of the city, going camping. “I want to live in a tent in the woods,” she says. “With one pot and one pan. And an old-fashioned aluminum mess kit with its own mesh bag. I want my hair to smell like smoke from yesterday’s fire, when I cooked my fish and my little white potatoes.”

Considering the beleaguered concrete-and-metal landscape of present-day Detroit, it’s significant that Mary yearns to be near the earth, to be away from the “civilization” and competitive consumerism that defines her life. It’s also significant that, as accessible as her fantasy of a wilderness escape is (the campsite of her dreams is, in fact, just a short drive away), she doesn’t show much interest in actually following through. Truth be told, she’s content just to entertain the idea of a simpler, more rustic life – a back-to-nature daydream which bears striking resemblance to the country ideal that, a generation or two earlier, lured families like hers out of the city and into the suburbs.

The dramatic set-up of the narrative mirrors that of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. We have an older couple, middle-class but struggling to stay there; the husband has lost his job and is lying about his progress (or lack thereof) in starting up his own business. Then there’s the younger couple, Sharon and Kenny, fresh out of rehab with hardly a cent to their names, but flush with mutual affection and an almost childlike sense of hope for their future. Like Edward Albee’s George and Martha, Mary and Ben’s bitter marital problems intensify through their interactions with the happy young couple. The younger couple has almost nothing – no furniture at all – but they make out constantly, and their happiness contrasts sharply with the evident chill in Mary and Ben’s bitter marriage.

Eventually, when Sharon and Kenny (played by Tyson Forbes) both fall off the wagon and start using again, they ignite within the older couple a similarly Dionysian fire, inspiring the older couple to let loose their inhibitions and break free from the circumstances that are crushing them. Joel Sass’s ingenious set design adds valuable dimension to the story’s trajectory from the quiet of a suburban community to dissolution into chaos. With furniture specially made to be destroyed, what happens to the set pieces on stage mirrors the characters’ own downward spiral; the climatic conflagration scene, in particular, is a masterful blend of realistic and symbolic elements.

The actors, particularly the women, all give riveting performances. Anna Sundberg endows the younger character, Sharon, with an innocence layered with pain and trauma that erupts to shattering effect in her monologues. But this is really Mary’s story, and Timberman’s ferocious performance ably provides the play’s fulcrum with fully-fleshed nuance that’s at once funny and heartfelt.

It’s a layered story that will linger in your mind for quite some time afterward, and it’s a work very much of this moment. While the play is funny and engaging, it delves into less comfortable questions, too – about what Americans are trying to achieve, what we are trying to escape. Sometimes, the answer to both is ourselves.

DETROIT – Trailer from Jungle Theater on Vimeo.

Related performance details: Detroit, written by Lisa D’Amour and directed by Joel Sass, is on stage at the Jungle Theater from April 11 to May 25.

Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis writer. She has written about visual art for Hyperallergic, The Art Newspaper, Artnet News, Bomb, and First American Art Magazine, and has also written for the Washington Post, The Guardian, and other national and international publications. Locally, she’s an arts columnist for MinnPost, writes about dance for The Star Tribune, and classical music for the Pioneer Press. You can also hear her arts stories on KFAI’s Minneculture program. …   read more