Superior Donuts

Superior Donuts is a superior play.  Theatre Huntsville is running this production at the VBC Playhouse through 23 January, and everyone needs to make every effort to go see it before it closes.

In this play, a middle-aged Arthur owns a run-down doughnut shop in uptown Chicago with hardly any customers, and he doesn’t care.  Life has beaten him down, and he is going through the motions of making doughnuts and simply existing.  Through the door walks Franco, a young man with dreams, looking for a job.  Their relationship slowly grows, and Franco brings Arthur back to life.  This is not a Hollywood movie with a storybook ending, but it is another incredible script by Tony- and Pulitzer-prize winner Tracy Letts, and Theatre Huntsville does it justice.

Sam Marsh’s direction deftly guides the story.  This is a character-driven piece, and he takes the time to build the relationships at their natural pace.  This script has the potential to make an audience squirm, with some salty language and undercurrents about race relations, but Marsh’s direction gives us a view of real people living real lives, and it all clicks nicely into place with apparent ease, and no offense taken.

Jeremy Woods is incredible as Franco, the young man with a desire to grab life by horns and bend it to his will.  He is a wave of energy every time he walks onstage, and provides many of the well-timed laughs and good feelings.  But none of that would work without the somber foundation provided by a superlative George Kobler, as Arthur, the doughnut-store owner on the other end of life’s travels.  While Woods provides the life and energy, Kobler provides the emotional heartbeat, pounding faster and faster as the play progresses.

The rest of the cast is stellar as well.  Letts wrote a script with a range of characters, who could easily become cardboard cut-outs orbiting Arthur and Franco, but thankfully, this cast doesn’t let that happen, with each member giving us a memorable, distinctive, real character.  Carlos Bofill, as Max, the owner of the DVD store next door, pulls off a Russian accent with ease, and wonderfully plays that person we all know who has never heard of political correctness, but gets away with it because we know he truly means no offense.

Megan Tompkins shows wonderful vulnerability as Randy, the female cop surrounded by testosterone on the job and in her family, who deep down wishes she could be treated as a woman.  Adam Howard does a fine job of portraying James, the other half of the neighborhood police partner team, working hard to fix problems in the neighborhood while hiding his geek card.

Jon Brown and Chris Carter, as the bookie-enforcer team that bring trouble to the store, are stellar.  This is a pair of characters that could easily have merged into an indistinguishable smudge of antagonism, but the VBC audience gets a jolting treat instead.  Brown, as Luther the bookie, exudes calm, confident menace, layered under a veneer of friendly banter, while Carter is veritably pinging off the walls with his drug-addict persona and hair-trigger temper.

The cast is rounded out by Elizabeth Shaffer, as Lady, the neighborhood kook, and David Schulte, as Kiril, Max’s very large Russian-immigrant nephew.  Both have minimal stage time, but both fill that time with distinctive characters who each bring their own special moments to the show.

The set, by Mark Eccleston, is perfect for the production, providing the exact look needed for a run-down doughnut shop in the big city.  It is unfortunate that the vandalism that starts the show isn’t more extensive, because after a few chairs are righted, there’s hardly anything for Arthur to notice when he walks in the door.  Still, we are past that fairly quickly, and the story has swept the audience along well enough that we allow the show to settle into its comfy home in the store.  The lighting by Cynthia Meyer, and the sound by Gordon Williamson aren’t anything fancy, but they don’t need to be for this show.  They support the production and set the scene, which is all that can be asked.  The fight sequence at the end was a bit disappointing, but it served its purpose, and didn’t detract from an otherwise great show.

Do not miss this show.  There is a general feeling in the Huntsville theatre community that productions with “bad language” won’t sell, but I disagree.  Granted, this isn’t a play for the kids, but it’s a solid script, well performed.  Audiences will forgive “bad” words, if it’s not gratuitous, and this isn’t.  These are real people, with real lives–real loves and loss, real dreams and history–and it well deserved its opening night standing ovation.

Superior Donuts runs through 23 January, with shows tonight and then Thursday through Saturday at 7:30, and matinees tomorrow and Saturday the 23rd at 2 PM.  Definitely make it down to the VBC Playhouse for this stellar production.  Reservations can be made here.