A family run donut shop 60-years in the running, and a street savvy kid with great ideas and a great gambling debt. The zoned out hippy draft dodger who runs the store is the last person you would expect to befriend the troubled youth with spunk in his soul, but the relationship between these two unlikely characters is the catalyst for an incredible story rich with humor and an amazing story from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracey Letts. Fells Point Corner Theatre is proud to present Superior Donuts as the start to the 2013 new year. Directed by Richard Dean Stover, this production is the perfect balance of life lessons mixed with humor and pleasure, and donuts.
Costume Designer Lynda McClary really helps the authenticity of the production by lending her talents to outfitting the cast. Keeping the cops looking crisp in their uniforms, complete with the complex utility belts, McClary really gives the citizens of the Chicago streets a real down home feel. Her finest work is showcased in the bag lady, the woman decked out with all the brightly colored rags dampened by the grungy dirt look and multiple layers. McClary’s hand in making the main character look like a stoner stuck in the 70’s really enhances his personality.
Director Richard Dean Stover manages to coax convincing accents from most of his players. The cops on duty have a very rough Chicago sound to them, especially Officer Randy. And when it comes to the Russians next door they sound more than believable. Stover’s crowning achievement in this production is getting the characters interactions to feel organic and natural, which he does with great success, giving the play a feel of reality. There are several moments throughout the production where it felt as if the people on stage were never actors in a role but instead really who they were playing and that their problems were actually their own.
I was not impressed, however, with the big fight scene that happens late in act II. Fight Choreographer Larry Malkus orchestrates a big blowout between the main character, Arthur, and a number-running bully, Luther Flynn and the fight drags. The punches thrown and the various other ‘violent moves’ look very forced and unnatural. The pacing of the fight is perilously slow, giving each faked move a chance to be scrutinized and evaluated rather than allowing the audience to get caught up in the drama and excitement of this climactic moment in the play.
The other problem is the disconnect of the main character to himself. Arthur (Phil Gallagher) just doesn’t feel present on stage – which would be fine since he’s a stoned hippy with issues from his past, except he feels logically disconnected, as if he doesn’t know which of his many traumas to draw from. His character is disjointed and overwhelmed, drawing from being Polish, a hippy stoner, a draft dodger, a widower, and an absent father; all of these vices could lead to a rich character with deep emotions and great conflict, but Gallagher’s portrayal is just lacking so many of these elements. It feels compartmentalized rather than unified and when he steps outside of himself to perform soliloquies he reads entirely as someone else not connected at all to the text or to the character. This seemed wildly out of place compared to everyone else’s on-target performance in the production.
The Bag Lady (Natalia Chàvez Leimkuhler) really fits into her homeless character flawlessly. With the streetwise attitude echoed in everything she says Leimkuhler provides the perfect balance between crazy homeless lady and woman who has seen it all. There is something to be said for someone who can convincingly carry the weight of being a salty street survivor as well as Leimkuhler.
Now where there’s a donut shop there’s bound to be cops. And this production has two of them. Officer James (William Walker) and Officer Randy (Lynda McClary) both put forth an impressive effort at mastering the beat walking efforts of Chicago city police. McClary lives up to the brusque reputation of a female cop while still having that dainty approach to her feminine side, proved by her awkwardly hilarious attempts to flirt with Arthur and her over-dramatic explosion of emotions when she misinterprets how he feels for her. Walker, on the other hand, plays up the strength of his character by combating stupidity and racism with well timed comedy. The play itself is ripe with racism, constantly sticking Walker’s character in a situation where he’s forced to deal with it, and Walker manages to effectively execute comic timing to his advantage in these situations.
Cops aren’t the only niche of stereotype played up in this production. Kevin (Andrew Porter) the hired thug looks and sounds every bit the part of street gangster muscle his character is painted up to be. With grisly tattoos on his neck, and a mean scowl permanently on his lips, Porter digs into the dirt of his character really letting his nasty side show in moments of intense drama. Playing the brawn of the two-person operation, he foils nicely against slick rick Luther Flynn (Robert Scott Hitcho).
The crowd pleaser garnering the most laughs and creating the most vibrant character is Jeff Murray with his portrayal of the fifty-something Russian Max Tarasov. With vim and vigor he approaches the character, lively with gestures when he speaks. Murray has mastered his accent with the elongation of his vowels and shows a further mastery with the dialect and turn of phrase throughout the production. He is engaging and compelling even if he isn’t seen on stage as much as the principles. A truly talented man in a rich and well crafted role, Murray is a force to be reckoned with upon the stage.
For every hippy stoner running a donut operation there is a sprightly spunky youth to bounce in and shake things up. This play has Franco (Christopher Jones) to do exactly that. Edgy and electric Jones engages in every scene, bringing his unique vibrant style to the table really setting this character on fire. He is every bit the exuberant urban youth you would expect from such a character and his portrayal of Franco really blows up the play in a whole new light. Jones is grounded in his emotions without being reserved and makes the perfect foil for the spaced out stoned Arthur. A dynamite performance from Jones keeps this show alive when he’s on the stage.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.
Superior Donuts plays through February 10, 2013 at The Fells Point Corner Theatre – 251 South Ann Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 276-7837, or purchase them online.