By Tracy Letts
Directed by Matt Miller
At Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., Chicago
Dough the Right Thing.
There’s a very obvious price for a life lived always in motion. What’s not always obvious is that there’s an equal cost to a life lived standing still. Such is the lesson that must be learned by a hermetic donut store owner in Chicago’s Uptown in Mary-Arrchie’s production of Superior Donuts. It’s at times gentle and genuinely funny with punctuations of pathos—all grounded in some affecting performances.
A little slice of the past (the story is set in the modern era circa 2008), the Superior Donut shop is the center of homemade donuts and habits for nearby residents. The taciturn Pole keeping it afloat is Arthur (Richard Cotovsky). He’s been keeping the family business barely alive for decades and knows no other life. Silently recovering from the death of his ex-wife, he barely notices the trashing of his store or the flirtations of Officer Randy (Millie Hurley). That changes when a young black man responds to his Help Wanted sign. Franco (Preston Tate, Jr) is a young pup to Arthur’s old dog, and he yaps and bounds about with a bevy of new ideas and new thinking that Arthur is hardly interested in hearing—from how to run the store to how Arthur himself should dress. Arthur is a draft-evader who settled for a life of comfort over struggle. Poles, he explains, base their life on hopelessness after all. Arthur’s bleak outlook is going to get a fresh injection of life. Unfortunately for one so young, Franco has already acquired a shameful secret beneath his affable exterior and he’s going to bring it with him to the shop. The consequences of that are going to force Arthur to confront not just Franco’s past but his own in the deal.
Smartly avoiding an overabundance of race-baiting, Superior Donuts evolves into a story about stories. Who we tell, why we tell them and what it means to share them. And, at a certain point, when we have to leave old stories behind and start creating new ones. It’s not a groundbreaking story arc (an old person is revitalized by a reminder of youth), but what elevates it is the chemistry of Cotovsky and Tate. Their combination of dry delivery and snap-wise-cracks helps their evolution from strangers to friends feel more genuine than the script might allow. Everyone in the cast gets a chance to shine. Ancillary characters get moments of insight that make this little world feel fleshed-out, full of quirky idiosyncrasies in a larger environment. Together, they transform what could have been trite into a sincere window to a weary world.
Superior Donuts is a production that plays the heartstrings with a light touch and a lot of laughs without getting overly sappy. Arthur’s touching soliloquies about his past and his regrets give his wizened hippie character more than one dimension. Franco’s secret (and the people it brings with it) feels a little out of place in light of the levity. It’s the most contrived part of the tale—seemingly shoehorned in to ensure that Arthur has a chance for a larger redemption than might be allowed in the real world. Still, it’s smarter than any average feel-good-movie-of-the-week even with similar tropes at its core. Like a Dunkin Donut versus a Superior’s, you can feel good about consuming it knowing it’s been crafted with care.