At the Coal Mine Theatre, 1454 Danforth, Toronto, Ont.
Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by Ted Dykstra
Set and Costumes by Anna Treusch
Lighting by Kaileigh Krysztofiak
Sound by Verne Good
Cast: Darla Biccum
Jon Lachlan Stewart
A gut-busting, heart-bursting production of Tracy Letts’ latest play about letting go, looking forward, opening up one’s heart and letting people in. And there are donuts.
The Story. During the Vietnam War Arthur Przybyszewski was a draft dodger from Chicago who found safe haven in Toronto. When President Jimmy Carter came to office in 1977 he pardoned the draft dodgers so Arthur returned home to run Superior Donuts, the family donut shot.
It’s now December 2009. Business is terrible. Arthur is despondent because his ex-wife has died recently. Arthur has not come into the shop regularly and when he was away someone broke in, trashed the place and wrote “Pussy” on the wall in pink paint. But Arthur advertises for a person to help in the shop. Fanco Wicks applies for the job—he has debts that need to be attended to or there will be trouble. He is an energetic, wily, persuasive 21 year-old African-American man. Arthur is overwhelmed by Franco’s enthusiasm and grand ideas for the shop. A friendship develops and Franco offers Arthur more than just help selling donuts.
Max Tarasov owns a DVD store next to Arthur’s donut shop and wants to buy it but Arthur won’t sell. Superior Donuts has been in Arthur’s family for 60 years and he can’t sell. It is the only thing he has that keeps him connected with his now dead parents. There was animosity between Arthur and his father when he left for Canada. By holding on in a way he is trying to make amends with his father. Max also has something to prove. He is an immigrant from Russia and owning the string of shops on the block will fulfill his idea of the American Dream. But Arthur won’t sell.
This is American playwright Tracy Letts channeling Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard—a family in financial need won’t sell their cherry orchard because it’s been in their family for years, even written up in the encyclopedia, and a once simple peasant, now a rich land owner, now wants to buy it.
The Production. Director Ted Dykstra’s production is a gift to those of us who love our theatre, smart, furiously funny, moving and heart-squeezing. Dykstra is a sensitive, nimble director, at ease with the minute details of comedy and drama. He fills moments with the simplest of stage business for the maximum results.
There is a standing gag that one of the police officers who frequents the donut shop, goes to Star Trek conventions with his wife, in costume. When the officer leaves the shop, another regular at the shop. Lady Boyle, mentally fragile and an alcoholic, waves at the officer while her fingers flutter in the air, trying to assume the Spock salute with her fingers separated and failing. It’s a small detail but it’s hilarious. The production is full of such directorial touches and they realize the heart and soul of these damaged, kind characters.
The cast is stellar. Robert Persichini plays Arthur, mournful, sombre, barely holding on, but with such dignity and compassion he makes your heart swell. His voice is rich, deep and calm. This is a man almost ground down to the ground who doesn’t raise his voice because he hasn’t the energy. His walk is almost a lurch, as if he needs that momentum because otherwise he will stop. It’s the performance of a man that is deep, sorrowful and yet at the end, hopeful. Nabil Rajo plays Franco Wicks with such winning optimism and natural street smarts he is a perfect foil for Arthur. Rajo has a keen sense of the humour and the hidden desperation of Franco. As Max, Alex Poch-Goldin shows us a man who is confident but so anxious and desperate to buy out Arthur and get his dream started, he takes your breath away. There is swagger, confidence, brashness and when you least expect it, desperation that is startling.
Various characters in Superior Donuts reveal their desperation in subtle ways. Luther Flynn is a loan shark with an ulcer. As played by Ryan Hollyman, he uses intimidation that rises to a fever pitch until his face turns red and he has to swill milk and pop pills to calm his agitated gut. Lady Boyle, as played by Diana Leblanc is a delicate bird of a woman, often confused, desperate for a donut (which she never pays for) and a kind word that she always gets from Arthur.
And there is an extended fight scene created by Simon Fon that will have you holding your breath for every second of it, it is so violent, funny and dangerous. I experienced that fight twice in a sense because Simon Fon happened to be seated next to me. With every bunch and kick of his creation he winced and sucked air. Loved that.
Comment. Superior Donuts is about a community of misfits holding on and caring for each other in their own way. It is a bracing, funny, achingly moving play about so many things that are good and decent about people. Even though it was written in 2010 it’s prescience about what is happening in the country of our neighbours to the south, is frightening. But at its heart is decency and hope.
This is a wonderful, wonderful production of a terrific play.
The Coal Mine Theatre presents:
Opened: Feb. 8, 2017.
Closes: Feb. 26, 2017.
Cast: 9; 7 men, 2 women
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes.