Although Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts never comes close to reaching the darkness or grittiness of his other plays, including Bug, Killer Joe, and August: Osage County, like a fresh-out-of-the-oven glazed it is somehow still satisfying in the moment. If not for all its empty calories, it would be easy to call it Tracy Letts lite.
Currently playing as part of this year’s Ensemble Theatre Company Summer Theatre Festival, Superior Donuts is the story of Arthur Przybyszewski, proprietor of the last remaining doughnut shop on Chicago’s north side.
Carrying some heavy emotional baggage with him through the years, as told through a few interrupting and unnecessary monologues, Arthur is simply going through the motions in operating the business he inherited from his disapproving father. Following an act of vandalism though, Arthur’s mundane existence is interrupted by 21-year old Franco Wicks who not only has big ideas and bigger dreams, but will eventually bring a renewed purpose to Arthur’s life.
Throw in a few secondary characters, including a love interest, an eccentric police officer, a wise mysterious woman, and a couple small-time mobsters, and it all begins to sound a little formulaic. And even while it ever so slightly edges into darker territory like that other retail comedy Kim’s Convenience, it largely plays out with the same sugariness as the doughnuts found in Arthur’s display case.
But Superior Donuts never really sets out to be more than it is, and this production knows it by fully embracing its predictability and stock characters. And thanks largely to some uniformly terrific and realistic performances, the ordinary rarely gets boring.
Leading the way is an absolutely spot-on performance from Chris Francisque as Franco. Lighting up the stage each time he makes an appearance, Francisque finds a unique blend of sass and brash while still managing the necessary vulnerability of his character. Francisque is so good, he even manages to bring an emotional resonance at play’s end, without having to say a word.
He is paired nicely with David Nykl as Arthur. It is surprising to know Nykl took over the role late in the game when the original actor was unable to continue, given how easily he inhabits this Polish sad-sack, both physically and emotionally. There is a genuine transformation which makes the predictability of his character arc palatable.
There is also some nice work being done by the others in this surprisingly large cast who flit in-and-out of the storefront.
Alexis Kellum-Creer is delightful as Arthur’s love interest, and Richard Meen lives up to his name as the mobster Luther. And while Steve James’ accent sometimes made it difficult to understand everything he says, especially in the production’s three-quarter round set-up, he is as wonderfully bold as the red track suit he eventually puts on. Those in the cast with even less stage time manage to bring life to their characters.
Under Keltie Forsyth’s direction there are some issues with sightlines, especially for one-third of the audience when the action moves to the floor during the fight scene, realistically choreographed by Richard Meen. Oddly, Forsyth forgoes the realism of the rest of her staging during the same scene by giving lighting designer Patrick Smith permission to wash the room in red.
Set designer Ariel Slack gives us a sufficiently rundown look to the doughnut shop which has seen better days, and without giving away the surprise, there is a smile-inducing moment as you first enter the theatre. And while Liz Gao’s costumes are largely non-descript, the uniforms for the two police officers are not consistent.
In our recent interview with director Forsyth and actor Francisque, the two talked about the hope and humanity that lives within the walls of this doughnut shop. And even though Superior Donuts only really skims the surface of some of its bigger themes, it largely delivers on that promise. The calories may indeed be empty, but they are still delicious.
Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts. Directed by Keltie Forsyth. An Ensemble Theatre Company production playing in repetory with The Drawer Boy and Born Yesterday. On stage at the Jericho Arts Centre (1675 Discovery St, Vancouver) until August 16. Visit ensembletheatrecompany.ca for tickets and information.
Editor’s Note (22 July): this review was edited to correct a misspelling of one of the actor’s names.