Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts, author of "Superior Donuts," currently running at the Royal George Theatre in Lincoln Park, is a Chicago theater institution and an artistic double threat. Letts received both a Pulitzer and a Tony award for his seminal work, "August: Osage County" in 2007, and I was fortunate enough to catch his creative adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s "Three Sisters" at Steppenwolf Theatre earlier this year.
Letts the accomplished actor is currently appearing in a production of Edward Albee’s "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" on Broadway. In 2009 local critics, including myself, experienced Letts’ thespian skill in the winning "American Buffalo," also at Steppenwolf.
Although far from an anomaly, rare is the talent that can cut back and forth between such different and demanding skill sets: as a writer, challenged to create an entire world in microcosm, a relatable, human experience out of nothingness; while the actor relinquishes a degree of visionary control to step into the skin of one entirely apart from himself. The Windy City theater community is blessed indeed to stake its claim as the home base of Lett’s abundant creative gifts.
It is Letts the author that Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. celebrates in its entertaining remounting of "Superior Donuts," the playwright’s 2008 work. Mary-Arrchie Artistic Director Carlo Garcia positions the decision to revive the Jeff Award-nominated production as follows: "Following 12 sold out weeks at Mary-Arrchie and a successful remount at Metropolis this past summer, ’Superior Donuts’ has become the best-selling show in Mary-Arrchie’s 27-year history and a true audience favorite.
The play is infused with the colloquial intimacy of Chicago culture while deftly handling the universal character clashes that can perversely unite. Racial, generational and dogmatic divides are bridged in this deceptively small tale of Arthur Przybyszewski (a realized performance from Mary-Arrchie founding member and Artistic Director, Richard Cotovsky), an aging hippie and standard-bearer of 1960s-era youthful rebellion.
Arthur is the owner/operator of a ramshackle donut shop located in the city’s evolving neighborhood of Uptown. As the disaffected Arthur bonds with Franco Wicks (a winning Preston Tate, Jr.), the new hire who seeks to modernize the business as well as his employer’s world view, challenges to Arthur’s passive ennui prove both exciting and unsettling.
Directed by Matt Miller, the maestro responsible for Mary-Arrchie’s original incarnation of "Superior Donuts" (which received four Jeff Award nominations, including Best Production), Miller is fortunate enough to serve as the foreman of many of the play’s original stars.
Covotsky was part of the piece’s development workshops at Steppenwolf in 2008, while Tate Jr. received the Denzel Washington Award for Most Promising Actor at the 2012 Black Theatre Alliance Awards for his work as Franco. The unity of these experienced threads on and offstage results in a satisfying entertainment experience.
Nostalgia, as a source of empowerment as well as stagnation, figures prominently in the play. Scenes pregnant with sharp dialogue are interspersed with Arthur’s soliloquies, in which he scrutinizes his past while reminiscing about a more idyllic Chicago that may never have existed.
Is Arthur’s reluctance to move with the times a celebration of ideological superiority, or a stubborn refusal to break with traditions that no longer serve him? The answer to this question is opaque, yet the most winning element of "Superior Donuts" is that very cloudiness, mirroring the universal internal debate. When it is in our best interest to let go, and when should we cling jealously to the past?
Solid work from the principals is buttressed by strong supporting performances from the likes of Millie Hurley as Randy, a tough-minded policewoman with a heart of gold, and Paige Smith as Max, another local shopkeeper and a potential foil for Arthur.
Ultimately charming and at times thought-provoking, Mary-Arrchie’s production of "Superior Donuts" is a necessity for audience members who embrace the cannon of playwright Terry Letts, and a definite recommend for fans of witty dialogue and the City of Chicago.
"Superior Donuts" runs through Dec. 31 at The Royal George Cabaret Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St. in Chicago. For info or tickets, call 312-988-9000 or visit the Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company website.