Tara Sissom’s boisterous performance as a tenuously clean drug addict in “Detroit” at first plays as too big for the B Street Theatre stage. Then you recognize that it’s not Sissom, it’s the character she’s playing.
Sissom’s performance is actually a highlight in this often funny, beautifully acted and sometimes racy production. She gets every detail right in playing Sharon, a woman battling her internal discomfort with outsize behavior. It’s just that usually you would see someone like Sharon coming and run the other way.
But “Detroit,” playwright Lisa D’Amour’s 2012 Obie-winning dark comedy, forces you to spend time with this woman. So naturally, she seems a bit much.
Determined to be the shiniest object in the room – or in this case, the landscaped backyard of next-door neighbors Ben (David Pierini) and Mary (Elisabeth Nunziato) – Sharon curses too much, makes too many declarations and over-thanks Ben and Mary for inviting her over for a barbecue along with her other, no-less-addled half, Kenny (Jason Kuykendall).
We’ve all known Sharons. She’s the woman at the bar who thinks you’re great, and everybody’s great, and gives you directions to an after-party but then doesn’t show up. Sharon’s patron saint is Courtney Love.
No one with good sense would seek out her company or that of Kenny, whom Sharon met in rehab. Though he’s sweet, Kenny’s not much of a conversationalist.
But Ben and Mary have little else going on. Ben, laid off from his job at a bank, is driving his paralegal wife crazy by being home all day. Drinking – the couple’s usual means of battling boredom – isn’t doing the trick. So they reach out to the new people next door.
Director Buck Busfield and his actors start “Detroit” by emphasizing differences between the couples. As Ben mans the grill in socks and sandals, Mary, in her pressed casual wear, fiddles with the umbrella over the patio table. They want everything to be nice.
When Sharon and Kenny enter, she in cutoffs and neck tattoos, he in dirty jeans and a torn T-shirt, it’s as if they came from another planet. Kuykendall and Sissom look positively feral next to the contained Pierini and Nunziato.
The foursome finds commonalities soon enough. Sharon and Kenny are down on their luck, but Kenny has a warehouse job. Ben and Mary are doing better, but not too much.
The backyard set used for both houses – Ben and Mary’s is appointed with nicer furniture – underscores how little difference exists between the couples.
Fences might make good neighbors but a bad economy and its subsequent emotional damage can erase the line between the middle and the working classes and between addicts who seek treatment (Sharon and Kenny) and “acceptable” drinkers such as Ben and Mary.
“Detroit” does not go much deeper than those observations, despite being set in the suburb of a city that’s now shorthand for the dashed American dream. Perhaps it’s timing. The play first opened in 2010, in the thick of the bad economy. Maybe D’Amour’s subtler societal commentaries were easier to catch when the crisis was more acute.
But D’Amour’s characters – and the four lead performances – are so well drawn as to nearly compensate for the play’s lack of bigger revelations.
Kuykendall offers small gestures that elicit laughs but also reflect his character’s shaky state. Kuykendall endearingly mixes enthusiasm and awkwardness when Kenny takes his turn at the backyard grill, that emblem of the suburban dream. Turning burgers with plastic forks, Kenny literally and figurative lacks the tools to pursue this dream.
Pierini will reveal, as the play unfolds, that the unemployed Ben is nearly as dazed by his circumstances as Kenny is by his own.
Ben and Kenny share something else: The women in their lives wear the pants.
Nunziato slides resentment and a desire for freedom beneath Mary’s perfect-hostess exterior. Mary appears to believe she and Ben provide good examples for the younger couple, when really, she’s living vicariously through Sharon’s tell-it-like-it-is stance.
Sharon is her freedom vehicle – the wild-child liberator who is a staple of literature and theater.
Sissom gives Sharon unexpected dimension by suggesting she wants to be a full-fledged adult, not an outlet for others. Once Sharon leaves the stage, you miss her.
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