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Funny, intimate 'Detroit' coming to Sutter Street Theatre

Sometimes small encounters can be life altering. And motivation to make a big change can come from a stranger. This is true for the two couples in the play Detroit, which Academy of Art University’s School of Acting is presenting in April. 

Written by Lisa D’Amour, Detroit won an Obie Award for Best New American Play in 2013 and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The story revolves around two very different couples who live next door to each other in an unnamed suburb near a midsize American city. In the play, Mary and Ben host their new neighbors, Sharon and Kenny, at a backyard barbecue. Detroit explores suburban angst related to upward mobility, spousal relationships and economic anxiety.

“The play is really about what you do when somebody new shows up in your life,” said Detroit director and School of Acting instructor Clark Houston Lewis. “Do you choose to ignore them or let them in to change you in some way? All four main characters have a lot at stake from the beginning. The play looks at how they are affected by other people in ways they want and—sometimes—in ways they don’t expect.”

Some 32 students from different departments across the University auditioned for the intimate play. Professional actor William Davis plays a supporting role as the older gentleman Frank, the only other character besides the two couples.

The cast includes photography major Renee Rogoff in the role of Mary. Rogoff said she was struck by Detroit’s humor and attracted to all five characters. 

“I liked that they all behave completely age-inappropriately, which is both hysterical and sickening,” she remarked. “I also love the challenge of playing a character who is relatively unsavory and finding pockets of understanding and love that the audience can latch onto. ‘Detroit’ is funny, witty, poignant and at times, very scary.”

Acting students Jessie Rankin (Sharon), Roman Reyes (Kenny) and Greg Snyder (Ben) make up the rest of the cast. Lewis said being part of such a small cast is both rewarding and challenging for the actors.  

“These are wonderful character studies,” he noted. “Most of the actors are on stage for the whole time and interweaving quite a bit, so it’s a test of stamina for them. In terms of timing, there’s a lot of comedy in the piece, so getting that right—along with the emotional stuff—is challenging.”

Before starting rehearsals for Detroit, Lewis and the actors spent time doing table readings together. These sessions gave them a chance to talk through scenes and understand the motivations driving the characters.

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“It’s helpful to take all that background information into account before digging into a scene,” explained Lewis. “The more we can do that, and the more questions we can ask, the more ideas we come up with. It’s a fun part of the process, but it also helps ground the actors in their characters and the world they are in.”

All four of the main characters in Detroit are teetering on the cusp of needing to make a decision about where they’re heading in life. But they don’t have all the information they need to guarantee they make the best choice. Lewis thinks people of all ages can relate to their dilemma—especially, perhaps students preparing to graduate. 

“Three of the students in the play are coming up on graduation and looking at that exact question,” he said. “They have to make a fundamental decision about what they’re going to do in this new phase of life after school without having all the information they need. Like the characters, they’re looking for help to make the right choice. What’s fascinating about this piece is the kind of choices the characters end up making. You see how it happened, yet you’re also surprised.”

Detroit performances will be held Thurs.–Sat., April 13–22, at the 620 Sutter Street Theatre. All shows begin at 8 p.m. Admission is free for Academy students and faculty; $15 for the general public.