First, let's get the elephant out of the room. Tracy Lett's August: Osage County is a masterpiece and will go down as one of the 10 best plays of the 20th century. Now it is time to move on.
The story revolves around Arthur Przbyszewski (Michael McKeon), who's Uptown donut and coffee shop has withstood the ever changing demographics of the neighborhood. One only has to mention there is a Starbucks on the corner to get the gist of the economic crush that sole proprietor shops ultimately face and 'Superior Donuts' is no exception. Arthur is an emotionally shut down Vietnam war veteran, a divorcee, a part time father and brilliant beyond anyone's expectations. Enter Franco Wicks (Jon Michael Hill), a part time student with a marked past who fills not only a much needed employee position at the shop, but also becomes a fast friend and companion to Arthur. Franco is the emotional opposite of Arthur, and as the two spend more time together, and as the plot unfolds, circumstances manifest as Franco is the one who becomes emotionally closed while Arthur becomes the surrogate father of the young man.
Mr. Lett's is a genius at giving his audience a true taste of ethnic culture and the local Chicago neighborhood vibe is palpable. In Superior Donuts, the Polish and Russian immigrants are explored to great emotional panache. What drives Superior Donuts is the concept of change and how open we as citizens are to accepting it. Sometimes we oppose it until it is forced upon us, sometimes we want it and sometimes it is destined. How each of these players copes with change is the key to this play's great gritty underbelly.
As with any family run shop that has been around for decades, there are the daily regular customers. At Superior Donuts, the cast of characters include Chicago cops Randy (Kate Buddeke) and James (James Vincent Meredith), a semi-recovering alcoholic, Lady Boyle (Jane Alderman) and the Russian businessman, Max (Yasen Peyankov) who's dream it is to buy Superior Donuts and complete is dream of turning the block into a large electronic store to rival "Best Buy".
As Arthur, Michael McKeon gives an understated and emotionally controlled performance that is absolutely amazing and heartbreaking. McKeon's stillness and how he reacts to the turmoil around him makes the play all the curious and enjoyable. A master at improve, Mr. McKeon is able to take in every line that is being spoken to his character, digest it and with his body movements, relate what he is thinking without speaking. He is sensational to watch.
Jon Michael Hill also gives a truly heart wrenching performance as Franco. His emotional journey is gripping, beginning as the ambitious wide eyed kid who can't wait for the world to embrace his writing at the beginning of the play, to a victim of violence who becomes the emotionally shut down equivalent of Arthur by the end.
Steppenwolf is an ensemble theatre and it is in this capacity that there is no other theatre like it in the country. Each of the players in Superior Donuts make the show a must see and the relationships that each character has on stage are all the more believable and real because of these amazing group of actors. Yansen Peyankov is terrific as the Russian 'tycoon'. He serves as both a foil and friend to Arthur, but in the end has respect for the immigrant stature of what the shop represents, even though he needs to do what he has to for his own survival. Kate Buddeke is strong as always as the cop with a crush on Arthur; Jane Alderman is hilarious as the "recovering" alcoholic who makes the donut shop part of her daily routine; Robert Maffia is menacing as ever and House Theatre's Cliff Chamberlain is a welcome new member to the ensemble; Michael Garvey's Kiril is a Dolph Lungren look alike with a better sense of humor; and the great James Vincent Meredith is the perfect 'Trekkie'.
Director Tina Landau has let the words be the focus of this play and gives great deference to this amazing core of actors. Ms. Landau moves the action at a controlled and deliberate pace which allows each of the characters to become fully developed.
Superior Donuts plays through August 17, 2008 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. For show times and tickets, please visit www.Steppenwolf.org or call the box office at (312) 335-1650.