For two hours, the Arden Theatre Company’s production of Superior Donuts is thoroughly involving if somewhat predictable theater.
Set in an old Chicago neighborhood that’s in a state of transformation, doughnut shop owner Arthur (Craig Spidle) laments the arrival of a Starbucks that has depleted his business. He still receives visits from a few regulars, like the oddly matched police partners (winningly played by Brian Anthony Thomas and Jennifer Barnhart), the ambitious owner of the store next door, Max (David Mackay), and an aging alcoholic named Lady (the excellent Nancy Boykin), who stops by for a free doughnut while trying to decide whether to spend the day at an AA meeting or at her favorite bar.
A draft dodger who evaded the Vietnam War by fleeing to Toronto, Arthur is a typical aging hippie who sports a Pink Floyd T-shirt, ponytail, full gray beard and who has a fondness for the occasional joint. Despite his casual, laidback appearance, Arthur is—thanks to Spidle’s savvy performance—capable of surprising passion, especially when recalling his childhood, which he does in a series of awkward soliloquies that are at odds with the play’s otherwise realistic tone.
Despite the store’s lackluster business, Arthur decides to hire a young, enterprising African-American man named Franco (the rapidly improving local actor James Ijames). Filled with ideas on how to improve Arthur’s business, Franco has big dreams. There is nothing he thinks he can’t do (including writing the Great American Novel). Ijames is such a likeable, charismatic actor that he makes Franco seem confident without being arrogant. Arthur and Franco seemingly have little in common, but Spidle’s and Ijames’ nuanced performances give the production its emotional center.
As the one-time director of play development at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company (where Tony Award-winning Tracy Letts’ Donuts premiered), Edward Sobel is intimately familiar with the story. Under his careful direction, we become fully immersed in the characters’ lives. An example of the ensemble-driven theater that Steppenwolf is famous for, the production doesn’t have any flashy star performances. Instead, it relies on natural, often understated portrayals that emphasize the characters’ sense of community. There isn’t a weak link in the capable cast, with special recognition going to Wilson (who gives his best performance in years) and Jake Blouch (who was terrific earlier this season in Lantern Theater’s A Skull in Connemara) as Kevin, a particularly menacing tough guy who provides muscle for the neighborhood bookie, Luther (the dependable Pete Pryor).
Letts raises a host of issues in the play: generational and racial differences, the effect an unresolved past can have on the present, and the loss of a neighborhood’s identity to the forces of gentrification. Donuts, though, doesn’t seem to be about any of that. At the play’s core is a character-driven drama about the value of community, a subject that the Arden treasures perhaps more than any other local company.
A major contribution to the show’s sense of community comes from scenic designer Kevin Depinet, whose spectacularly authentic set captures the feel of the well-worn neighborhood. Expanding his design beyond the confines of the old doughnut shop with its familiar counter stools, Depinet’s detailed design includes a rooftop fire escape, overhead power lines and large girders that support the elevated train tracks running above the store. His wonderfully atmospheric design is easily the most impressive set seen on a local stage this season.
Unfortunately, Donuts comes undone in the last 15 minutes, ending on a note that can only be described as forced optimism. Letts is seemingly determined to take this path, but it’s an unnecessary end to an otherwise charming play.
Through April 3. $29-$48. Arden Theatre Company. F. Otto Haas Stage. 40 N. 2nd Street. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org
Calendar: Sept. 2-9