Lives on the edge

The Wilbury Group's 'Detroit'
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 26, 2013

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DIRE STRAITS Tessier and Weishahn. [Photo by Brian Gagnon]

Have you and your partner ever wanted to trade places with another couple that you liked and admired? Exchange jobs, stations in life, maybe even personal problems?

In Detroit, by Lisa D’Amour, which the Wilbury Group is staging through October 5, two pairs of next-door neighbors never get to that point explicitly, but their dissatisfactions are always bubbling under the surface of their lives, threatening to emerge into confusion. The title can be thought of as metaphorical, since the big city near the suburb they live in is unnamed.

Actually, a disruption probably could have made a better play. Feel free to dismiss my opinion, since there has been overwhelmingly positive critical reception: Detroit was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and won the Obie for Best New American Play the next year.

Yet, without dismissing its many enjoyable moments, I couldn’t help but wish for two slightly different couples, each a less prosaic, more self-aware example of the social, economic, and psychological contrasts they represent as archetypes in today’s America. Let me explain.

Mary (Melissa Pennick) is a paralegal and her husband Ben (David Rabinow) is a laid-off bank loan officer. Freshly moved in next door are Kenny (David Tessier) and Sharon (Clara Weishahn), who require lengthier descriptions than that he works in a warehouse and she works the phone in a customer service center. Formerly dedicated substance abusers, they met in a rehab facility, and while they obviously dote on each other, their financial situation is dire. After several weeks of living in their new home, they don’t have a stick of furniture, save for the coffee table that Mary impulsively insisted on providing.

Smartly directed by Josh Short, the excellent performances by the four main actors are what make this production compelling, despite any storytelling flabbiness.

The characters, while sometimes coming across a social stereotypes, eventually are precisely individualized. Sharon makes Mary’s nervousness look like beatific calm, performed by Weishahn with a hyperactivity that comes across as charming vitality. She is so impressed at being served steak at their first dinner next door that she starts crying, comparing their welcome to relationships with former junkie friends “with blood caked in their hair,” Sharon notes. (She says the first thing she did coming out of rehab was buy a flower print dress. Great characterization; a house in the suburbs is the natural follow-up.)

Ironically, considering the drug-infused past of Sharon and Kenny, it is the other couple who are more troubled. Mary and Ben’s occasional marital conflicts seem slight but they accumulate. For example, he is working on building a website that will broadcast his availability as a credit consultant, but when Mary asks how that by itself will bring in business, he has no immediate answer. She sometimes despairs, at one point saying, “I want to live in a hut in the woods, with one pot.”

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