Theater in Chicago: Detroit at Steppenwolf Defines the New Reality.


Ensemble members Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Kevin Anderson and Laurie Metcalf. Photo by Michael Brosilow.


Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kate Arrington and Kevin Anderson. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The Steppenwolf Theatre World Premiere of Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit can be viewed at various levels.  On the surface, it can be enjoyed for it’s witty dialogue, superb comic timing, amazing set design and the wonderful on-stage chemistry of its ensemble actors. Dig a little deeper and you will see Detroit is a metaphor for what is happening in today’s world. 

By setting the tale in a first ring-suburb of Detroit, D’Amour is able to focus on what is happening to the American dream.  The “first ring” suburb wouldn’t have to be Detroit, it could be outside almost any urban city in the U.S.   Detroit is the metaphor for a suburb that is older, with smaller houses built about 40 or 50 years ago during a time of American Optimism.  In another metaphor, the streets in the play are all named to evoke a feeling of “light” to reflect that optimism.  By 2010, when the play takes place, the original houses are starting to fall apart along with the lives and dreams of its mostly middle-class residents.

We meet Ben (Ian Barford) and Mary (Laurie Metcalf) as they fire up the grill to welcome the new neighbors Kenny (Kevin Anderson) and Sharon (Kate Arrington) who’ve just moved into the long-empty house next door.  The barb-o-que starts out innocently enough with the couples getting to know each other revealing their public selves but initially keeping their private selves under wraps. However, it doesn’t take long before things begin to unravel. 

There is an underlying fear and anxiety that haunts the characters.  They want desperately to


Ensemble members Laurie Metcalf, Kevin Anderson and Kate Arrington. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

be happy and to be liked.  They struggle with substance abuse and an inability to connect in the face of today’s technology that is moving so rapidly, that according to Sharon, the Internet we know now, we won’t even be able to recognize in the near future. 

Detroit reflects the new reality.  The suburbia that people aspired to in the “Leave it to Beaver” era of the 1960s is gone. The American Dream for many has become the American nightmare with an unsettling economy, a divisive political climate, foreclosures, layoffs, over-shadowed by a general lack of privacy–whereas anyone can find out almost anything about anyone by just googling them.

Applause for Steppenwolf for exploring this hot button issue.  Unlike many theaters, Steppenwolf is not afraid to try something new–pass or fail.  Their 2010-2011 Fall Season explores the theme of public/private self. Detroit is just the vehicle to get this exploration underway. As director Austin Pendleton said when asked why he selected Detroit as the opener for the season, “It just jumped off the page for me.” 

About the Playwright.

Lisa D’Amour is a playwright and interdisciplinary artist whose works have been presented in New York and other major U.S. cities.  D’Amour has been commissioned to write two new plays for Steppenwolf over the next two years through support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

About the Director.

An actor, director and playwright, ensemble member Austin Pendleton began his artistic relationship with Steppenwolf directing the 1979 production of Say Goodnight, Gracie. His award-winning plays include Booth, Uncle Bob and Orson’s Shadow, which received its world premiere in the Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage.

Tickets and Information.

Detroit runs through November 7 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.; $20-$70 at 312 335 1650. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.


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