Actors rehearse for the play Detroit at Riverside Theatre on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. The play, written by Lisa D'Amour and directed by Angie Toomsen, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and on the New York Times list for top ten plays of 2012. (Ben Allan Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Riverside explores Detroit, challenging the dynamic between two couples


Detroit is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning play that has received critical acclaim since its release. Riverside Theater will perform the play staring Friday.

By Sarah Stortz

Fourth of July will come early this year, heralded by explosive performances.

Riverside Theater, 213 N. Gilbert St., will begin its run of the comedy-drama Detroit at 7:30 p.m. Friday; the performances will continue through Feb. 11.

Taking place in an unnamed Detroit suburb, the play follows Mary and Ben, a couple who struggle financially. Ben recently lost his job as bank-loan officer and takes another job in which he helps those in debt on the Internet.

One day, new neighbors move into their suburb. Sharon and Kenny are both recovering drug addicts. Mary and Ben decide to invite their neighbors to a backyard barbecue as celebration for Independence Day. In the banter among the couples, discourse bursts out as the four of them learn their individual backgrounds.

Playwright Lisa D’Amour wrote the play, which has been performed all over the country since its release in 2010. D’Amour said she was driven to write Detroit after going through the recent major recession and housing crisis. Her father suffered major losses during the stock decline in 2008, even though he had a history of financial responsibility.

“I sensed in him a feeling of bewildered frustration, like, ‘What did I do all this hard work for?’” D’Amour wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan. “So, while I wasn’t completely conscious of it while writing, the play bubbles with the anxiety and frustration of that particular American moment.”

She also wanted to keep the two couples distinct from each other in terms of their lifestyles and goals.

“I was interested in writing a play about two very different couples who wanted to be each other,” D’Amour said. “I’m fascinated with how restless we are as human beings. We think we know what we want, and then we get it and try to see it — we find ourselves stuck.”

After spending a year collaborating with other theaters, she said she wanted to create something mainly for herself.

“I needed to hole up and write something private, with zero expectations about how or if it would succeed,” she said. “The irony, of course, is that now it is my most widely produced play.”

During its time in the theater scene, Detroit received critical acclaim because of its honest humor and accurate representation of the working class, and it garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011. D’Amour has traveled all over the world to see adaptations of the play, being amazed with how different theaters interpret it.

“I’ve seen theaters achieve with lots of money and high tech, and I’ve seen theaters achieve it using only lights and sound,” she said. “And to be honest, some of the low-tech versions have been my favorite. I love watching theaters tackle this challenge creatively and trusting that the greatest tool they have to work with is the audience’s imagination.”

Katy Slaven (Sharon) said the tech at Riverside will help amplify the show.

“On a technical side, there are going to be things that the audience will see in this production that they’ve never seen at Riverside before,” Slaven said. “Some of the shows here have much more of a focus on acting, and as much as we’re focused on acting in this production, there’s also some really fun magic tricks.”

She said she was ecstatic to take on the project after hearing Angie Toomsen would direct the show.

“I trust Riverside very much,” Slaven said. “I’ve done several shows here, and every one of them has been a valuable experience for me, so I always look forward to getting to work here. Angie Toomsen has the unique blend of being incredibly kind and a fun person while still having a very clear point of view and never being afraid of telling you what she really thinks.”

Slaven described Sharon as someone who is free-spirited and open, even though life has treated her harshly.

“I think that throughout the play, she brings out some of the other characters who might be a little more in their heads about things,” Slaven said. “She helps get them in touch [with] parts of themselves that might get lost.”

John Miersen (Kenny) will make his theatrical début at Riverside after being asked to audition for a part. While delving into his character, he said, he identified with Kenny by having a bit of an unstable side.

“Kenny, in the show, is trying to play a normal person living in a suburb, but there’s a wild side that’s burning inside of him,” Miersen said.

After initially reading the script, he wasn’t sure how the team could bring the chaos to life.

“I thought, ‘How are we going to do this?’ ” he said. “It’s still crazy, every night we do it, but we kind of got a grasp on it. Once you get a grasp on it, it gets tamer, so you can wrap your mind around it.”

Throughout the events in the play, D’Amour said, the audience can take away an important message from all the insanity.

“We are making ourselves in each moment,” she said. “We are making America in each moment. Don’t be afraid to speak the truth and invent yourself.”

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