In the Journey power ballad “Don’t Stop Believing,” Steve Perry sings of a city boy “born and raised in South Detroit.”
For those unfamiliar with the Motor City, it may come as a shock that South Detroit does not exist: Immediately south of downtown Detroit is the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario. Perry later said he tried variations of north, east and west, “but South Detroit just sounded so beautiful.” Only after recording did Perry find out it doesn’t exist.
In Lisa D’Amour’s Pulitzer-finalist “Detroit,” the play’s four main characters are similarly in search of places they aren’t entirely sure exist. Whether it’s sobriety, a clean start or just getting away from the known world, the characters are all striving for something they might not be able to define. This struggle is set in the suburb of a mid-sized American city that is “not necessarily Detroit.”
In Cadence Theatre Company’s production, director Anna Johnson has pulled together a dynamite cast to explore this tale of suburban strife.
The play opens with two couples grilling on a backyard patio; Ben and Mary are the married couple hosting, and Kenny and Sharon have recently moved in next door. Recently laid off from his job at a bank, Ben (Larry Cook) is working to create a business from home to help people get out of debt, and Mary (Laine Satterfield) works as a paralegal.
The last time Cook and Satterfield played a couple on stage it was George and Martha in Firehouse Theatre’s triumphant “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Though the alcoholism is still intact, the actors have scaled their characters’ onstage dueling back to a relatable level.
Kenny and Sharon (Landon Nagel and Chris Lindsay-Abaire) are recovering addicts who hope a change of scenery will help keep them from lapsing into their bad habits. With this show, Nagel returns to the Richmond stage after a five-year hiatus, and Lindsay-Abaire -- who serves on Cadence’s board and is the wife of Pulitzer-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire -- makes her Richmond debut.
The couples are set up as foils to each other, with the men not appearing to be what they initially seem and the women searching for a way to figure out their place in the world. All four have their addictions, and the play seems to draw some connection between 12-step programs and self-help books. As they become friends, the walls of civility quickly erode, descending into a bacchanalian train wreck in the penultimate scene.
Under Johnson’s direction, the cast performs admirably, whether it’s Lindsay-Abaire humorously singing “Don’t Stop Believing” or Nagel’s sudden rant about being men in the second act. Brian C. Barker’s set manages to realistically fit the back of two houses into the tiny theater space, but the special effects are underwhelming at the show’s climax.
In the play’s final scene, Bill Patton pops in for a last-minute soliloquy as Frank, Kenny’s relative. As Frank longs for the identity and purpose that the suburbs had -- and its promise of upward mobility -- D’Amour makes the case that perhaps something has been lost in our digital world, and that we all seem to long for a place we aren’t sure is real.
In her mind, Detroit isn’t a city or a song reference at all -- it’s a metaphor for the collapse of the American Dream and our sense of place. And in an America still trying to get back on its feet in the aftermath of the recession, it seems to be a search that goes on and on and on.
CORRECTION: This review initially credited the special effects at the climax to Kevin Inouye. That was inaccurate.
Cadence Theatre Company’s “Detroit” plays through May 24 at Virginia Rep Center. For more information, call 282-2620 or visit cadencetheatre.org.