I’ve never been to a production at the Seattle Public Theater before, but now that I’ve seen "Superior Donuts" I can’t wait for the next one! Tucked into the historic Bathhouse Theater at Greenlake, the venue is oddly shaped and quite intimate.
I would say that "Superior Donuts" is worth attending simply for the marvelous set designed by Craig Wollam, but I’d be doing a disservice to an equally remarkable script by Tracy Letts and an incredible production and performance directed by Russ Banham. Just go for the whole experience.
Set in an old somewhat the worse-for-wear donut shop in Chicago, the show opens with two cops, Randy (Jena Cane) and James (Troy Allen Johnson), surveying the damage caused by a break-in with neighboring shop owner, Max Tarasov (Alexander Samuels).
The green linoleum floor is littered with sugar packets, napkin holders and broken stools from around the U-shaped Formica counter, and the sign over the counter reads "DO UTS" next to the framed first dollar of sales. The front door sports graffiti together with a "Help Wanted" sign. When the owner of the donut shop, Arthur (Kevin McKeon) appears he starts cleaning up the mess without much interest in it.
Arthur is the central hub of the story, and McKeon strikes a good balance between Arthur’s public persona as an aging, easygoing, draft-evading hippy, which hides his fear that he may be a coward. His anger is aroused when he feels threatened into acknowledging how much that fear has ruled his life. Of Polish descent, he runs his family’s old donut shop.
Arthur steps back and forth between real time interactions at the shop with the other characters, and personal discourse with the audience, when we learn the details of his history. The lighting design by Tim Wratten plays a key role in the distinction, with the shop’s fluorescent overhead lights on during the real time scenes, and darkening during the personal exposition.
Over the course of the play we experience the rich and complex fabric of community and cultures by seeing the individual lives and relationships of the characters. Franco (Charles Norris) is the young African-American man who comes to answer the "Help Wanted" sign like a breath of fresh air. But that breath threatens Arthur’s easy complacence. Both Franco and Arthur have problems in their lives that consume them, but we don’t see that at first as their friendship develops, across age and race and the assumptions made by both men.
Norris is just a delight as Franco, and watching him fill the role is a joy. Franco comes off as an intelligent, energetic, light-hearted young man, full of big dreams for the future and hilarious one-liners: "You know why there’s no Whole Foods here? Imagine a big angry brother walking around Whole Foods with his arms loaded up with Echinacea and star fruit;" his line to a pony-tailed Arthur, "You know who looks good in ponytails? Girls...and ponies;" and when Arthur is tongue-tied, saying "I...I...," Franco nips in with, "Pick a verb, any verb!"
As Arthur and Franco get to know each other, we begin to realize that Franco has some serious trouble in his life that is about to boil over. When it does, it pulls together everyone on the block, from the cops to feisty local homeless woman Lady Boyle (Sally Brady) to tough-talking Russian shop owner Max ("You have friends and they are bad men, but I also have friends and they are Russian.") and his shy mountain of a nephew Kiril (Daniel Wood) in opposition to local bookies, Luther (Gordon Carpenter) and Kevin (Zach Sanders). Arthur is finally forced to face his fears and his own history of lost dreams in order to support Franco in pursuing his dreams.
You can really see the love and craftsmanship in every part of this production; from the details of the set, including the sounds of wind and weather every time the door to the shop opens and even a little snow flurry in the aisle of the theater on the outside of the door and along the edge of the stage outside the shop, to the choice of music (sound design by Jay Weinland), to the willingness of the actors to give themselves to the roles and therefore to us in the audience.
They are not all easy and happy times, but you leave the show with a sense of hope and possibility. Congratulations to Seattle Public Theater for a well done and heartening production! (Please note if you attend: there are occasional strobe light effects and one instance of herbal cigarette smoke in the production.)
"Superior Donuts" runs through October 21 at Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W. Greenlake Dr. N. in Seattle. For info or tickets, call 206-524-1300 or visit www.seattlepublictheater.org.