In an almost -transitioning contemporary Chicago neighborhood the Superior Donuts shop has just been vandalized. The not-so-prosperous family business is run by its only survivor, ex-hippie and no-longer young Arthur Przybyszewski. A challenge, given that his overall approach to life is ruled by being so laid back as to almost lie down and accept whatever befalls. And what else is he going to do? 

Investigating policewoman Randy empathizes; she might even want to get closer to Arthur, if he’d let her. In his emotional fog, he doesn’t see his way to reach out and grab her. Oh well, back to business. Fix up and move on.

Then something else unexpected happens. An optimistic, seemingly happy young black man from another neighborhood, Franco Wicks, asks Arthur for a job. Brash Franco brushes aside Arthur’s contention that he doesn’t need help and immediately starts suggesting more modern improvements, in effect pointing out that the city needs more than sugary fats and warmed over coffee. Arthur takes him on, but really needs help of a different kind; he just has to realize that.

An unlikely cross-racial, cross-generational relationship develops. Take it from there, as developments transpire at Omaha Community Playhouse’s production of Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Superior Donuts.

Director Susan Baer Collins sees the setting as relevant to us here due west of Sandburg’s hog butcher for the world. This takes place where people of various roots cross paths, immigrants, street people, black youth in trouble. “A rich vein of feeling runs through the drama,” commented the Los Angeles Times.  

Collins thinks that the idea of family underlies this story. “Family isn’t necessarily the people that you’re related to by birth. We should never turn down an opportunity for friendship, even from the least likely sources. It’s about community and accepting.”

Letts certainly has become known for writing about family. His Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award- winning August: Osage County  dwells on a tightly intertwined clan whose veins run with poisoned vinegar, while scratching and clawing at each others’ souls. Adding to the image of a rep for nastiness, Letts also gave us Bug  and Killer Joe. Wha? Where did this potential heart-warmer come from?

Letts calls Superior Donuts his “love letter to Chicago.” He spent creative years in that city from age 20, staying for 11 years with Steppenwolf Theatre Company where he is still an active member.

He often writes about struggles with moral and spiritual questions, citing inspiration especially from Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, Letts has explained what ties his plays together. He believes that writers should “write from a place of empathy, get into another character’s shoes and experience things both mundane and tragic.” He points out that some people “aren’t necessarily the most eloquent when trying to express their emotions,” and that they “deserve a voice,” articulate enough for them to identify with.

Witness Arthur’s voice in soliloquies, trying to find a way to explain who he is and how he got to be that way, turning towards the shadows outside the framework of his surroundings, facing us, trying to face himself.  

Yet don’t think that this play is some kind of heavy load. Much of the first act introduces fascinating characters who say lots of colorful things, sometimes salty, bound to make you laugh and to like them. And the next hour, as Franco’s own troubles emerge and threaten, amid surprises and tensions, deeper meaning and warm tenderness emerge. Everything moves towards awareness of what these people and we have in common, worth remembering in these turbulent days.

The New York Times describes Superior Donuts  as “a gentle comedy…a warm bath of a play that will leave Broadway audiences with satisfied smiles rather than rattled nerves.” It says that the style and setting strongly, comfortably resemble Norman Lear’s groundbreaking TV scripts with “smart jokes and social understanding.” 

However, be alert, you could be rattled when graphic physical violence emerges. “I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude on stage,” Director Collins says. “It’s a challenge to make it real when the audience is so close, as in this theater.”

Plus there is an adult language warning. Collins thinks that’s a valid given. “This is how these people would sound, their urban and ethnic ways of speaking.”

As for other authentic elements, expect some olfactory enhancements. There will be actual donuts on stage as well as real coffee brewing. Perhaps even donuts on sale in the lobby, should the urge emerge.

Speaking of authenticity, Collins wanted her two actors in the roles of Chicago police to have a solid sense of what it must be like in shoes on patrol, especially in a racially tense time and place such as in this neighborhood on stage. She invited local officers to talk to the performers, assisted and advised as well by Greg Scheer, backstage production coordinator and part-time member of OPD, supplemented by former production team member Mark Blice, now a full-time wearer of the badge. Collins hopes that her fictional police feel the presence and effect on their bodies of day-long wearing of 30 pounds of equipment. And, given that the two characters are male and female, can learn and show how such relationships work. 

Letts not only got a Pulitzer for August: Osage County, he was also nominated for another with 2003’s Man From Nebraska  seen here at Bluebarn in 2008. He wrote screenplays for film versions of Bug, Killer Joe  and August: Osage County.

Letts did not do so for this year’s CBS series’ lighter take on the characters and situations of Superior Donuts; he’s been busy as an actor. He’s become known for portraying CIA director Andrew Lockhart in Showtime’s Homeland, for which he has been nominated for two Screen Actors Guild Awards as a member of the ensemble. Letts has also had roles in TV shows such as Judging Amy, Seinfeld, Early Edition  and Home Improvement. 

In feature films, Letts has been in Guinevere,  U.S. Marshals,  Chicago Cab,  Straight Talk, The Big Short  and Indignation  and often on stages, including Broadway, he won a Tony portraying George in a 2006 Broadway production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  

Re Man from Nebraska, it too is quite different from August: Osage County. The man from Lincoln struggles with a heartbreaking loss of religious faith. Searching for his soul, he eventually finds it. You may hope that Arthur Przybyszewski finds his.

Superior Donuts runs May 5th to June 4th, Howard Drew Theatre, Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St. Thurs–Sat.: 7:30 p.m. Sunday: 2 p.m. Tickets $22-$36.

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