The first thing the audience notices is Céline Garandeau’s meticulously designed set which effectively roots the story in protagonist Arthur Przybyszewski’s (Jonathan Vanderzon) struggling donut shop. The audience is first introduced to Przybyszewski as he arrives late and hungover while police investigate graffiti spray-painted on his store’s interior walls.
Arthur soon hires Franco Wicks (Sory Ibrahim Kaboré), a young African American man looking for any job, and the hopelessness that has come to define Arthur’s life effeceitvely contrasts with Franco’s overt optimism and charm. This conflict is portrayed brilliantly by the two actors, as Kaboré’s charisma and energy clash with Vanderzon’s understated performance.
Playwright Tracy Letts explores the vulnerabilities of masculinity in Chicago’s modern working class, as well as the intergenerational relationships that inform this insecurity.
When asked about the show’s relevance today in a post-show interview, director Clay Walsh spoke to the importance of relationships between different generations and the conflicts that arise in Superior Donuts. Though this is a potent theme in the play, it was the seeming vulnerabilities of working class masculinity that were most significantly displayed, as well as the tensions that exist between immigrants and African Americans.
First, Arthur’s struggle in maintaining a business passed onto him by his father speaks to the ideological conflicts between father and son. In one of his soliloquys, Arthur remembers when he and his mother had to get his father drunk to stop him from joining a crowd throwing rocks at Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, while in contrast, Arthur had his head split open protesting at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Secondly, Arthur owns and runs a failing business that must compete with a Starbucks across the street, his wife has left him, and he hasn’t spoken to his daughter in five years.
Additionally, the insecurities of Arthur’s racist, middle-aged, Russian neighbour, Max (Filip Rakic), are made apparent from his first entrance on stage when he pushes Arthur to sell his donut shop so that he can expand his business. As a 50-year-old man still renting an apartment, Max must wait until he is financially able to own a home before having a wife or kids. Max explicitly verbalizes the intersectional anxieties and insecurity of this working class community. Rakic walks a fine line in his role, balancing the ambition of his character with the feelings he has for his nephew and Arthur, and the obvious stereotype of the vodka-drinking, racist Russian.
We also witness Max’s fiery attempts to instill American values in his Russian nephew (Yassine Chaabi), emphasizing his need to speak English and not be shy. Despite his few lines entirely in Russian, Chaabi manages to convey the conflict he feels in wanting to respect his uncle’s wishes and expectations, while harboring a gentler side that is exemplified when he tenderly helps Lady back onto her chair in the donut shop after she is shaken up by his drunken uncle.
Though the topic of economic and social anxiety is effectively explored, other aspects of the play were at times confusing. The staging seemed awkward in the Players’ diamond-shaped theatre, and oftentimes actors appeared stilted and sitcom-esque. Further, whereas the emotional climax in the second act was moving and satisfying, the physicality of the confrontations that took place seemed awkward with the actors at times appearing unable to decide how to stand or use their hands. Moreover, Walsh’s choice to include no music and very few added sounds made some of the already slow-burning dialogue seem clumsy and disjointed. Despite this caveat, the positives of the play outweighed these relatively minor negatives.
In all, the production was poignant, well executed and heart-warming, with emotionally powerful moments tempered by cutting humor. The result is a nuanced and at times frustrating study of the vulnerabilities of working class masculinity, consequently leaving only two relatively small roles for women. But at moments of inequality and economic anxiety, what was written as a love letter to Chicago in the end seems more a lamentation for the changes that have ripped through a traditional neighbourhood and left all members fighting to work towards expectations that are no longer realistic.
If you’re looking for an honest, intriguing and satisfying exploration of intergenerational relationships in tough times, head over to Players’ Theatre and pick up a donut while you’re there.
Superior Donuts runs from January 18th – 21st and 25th-28th at Players’ Theatre in SSMU. Tickets are $6 for students and $10 for general admission.