The Place of Characters in a Characterless Place

Detroit @ Steppenwolf Theater, 11/4/2010.

Steppenwolf Theater claims that its current season is devoted to the theme of public lives and private lives, however in Lisa D’Amour’s Detroit, the character’s lives, both private and public, are more accurately described as vessels for exploring place.

The play tells the story of two couples, one struggling but still hanging on to middle class status, and the other drifters, perhaps even grifters, decamped in their uncle’s abandoned house next door.

The acting is excellent, but the actors are dwarfed, quite literally, by the set, which features the back yards and facades of two suburban homes. Home is where the heart is, right? Except these characters seem to find these homes alien places, everything broken, falling apart, never quite repaired or maintained. The play even updates the old Chekhov’s Gun adage: in Detroit, if an umbrella collapses in act one, a roof will surely cave in by play’s end. The two houses loom over the stage like intimidating bullies more than welcoming abodes, and ultimately they seem more like sinkholes of the soul than heart-warming hearths.

The last speech of the play is given by the uncle who once lived in the home next door to the vaguely-middle-class couple. In a rambling trip down memory lane, he nostalgically reminisces about the post-World War II years, when there were community dances and neighborly relationships in this anonymous housing development somewhere in the first-ring suburbs of Detroit, that once-grand arsenal of democracy.

But now, long after the decline of Detroit, the play’s place has vanished. A neighborhood whose streets were playfully named after various kinds of lightness has become so emptied of solidity that its characters almost float away. There’s just locks on falling-down doors in this place; zombies struggling to find their way out, but they can’t find their footing. The streets of sunny optimism have turned to nothing more than dust motes in sunbeams. The old sense of community has been left to the brambles, which is where, as one of the main characters explains, a sign that once celebrated the locale has become buried in the bushes.

The main couple in the play listen to the sentimental ramblings of the man who once lived next door to them, at once fascinated and bored out of their minds. It’s as if his sepia-toned memories are at once precisely what they long for and totally irrelevant to their own times, lives, and, most of all, place.

Nothing seems to matter anymore in this neighborhood of the lost. There’s a kind of numbness not even the raunchy, penultimate scene can cure. Indeed, in a somewhat critical review, Catey Sullivan wrote on the Chicago Theater Blog that though the play is filled with great writing and acting, “there’s never much at stake” in Detroit.

Perhaps, though, this is precisely the point. These are forgotten, forsaken fellow Americans for whom our society, all of us, dimly remember some kind of vague affinity and commonality, but only in a remote way. They’ve even forgotten themselves. Not even their homes can keep them from floating away. All that was solid has melted into air.

We live after the conflagration, now, in the charred brambles of a collective culture whose neighborhoods have become placeless places, leftover ashes sifted by the winds. People smolder there, in the detritus of Detroit, we think we can see them, but there’s a haze. There’s no place, just dreams of home overshadowed, paradoxically, by invisible nothingness.

Without place, the play seems to suggest, we can’t quite remember why they matter, or where our sense of the stakes of their lives—or our own, for that matterless matter—went.


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