Welcome to Superior Donuts in Uptown Chicago, established by the Przybyszewski family c. 1950 and static ever since. You know the place: checkerboard floor, lettered window, illuminated menu board, vintage register. All that’s missing in Colonial Players’ set is the sweet aroma and some napkins for the dispensers.
Arthur (Terry Averill), the aged hippie who owns the place, hasn’t had his heart in it lately. What with his ex’s death, his daughter’s estrangement and the new Starbucks across the street, he’s more in touch with past failures than present possibilities.
Still, he has his regulars: namely officers James Bailey (Chris Haley) and Randy Osteen (Shirley Panek), who has a crush on Arthur; and Lady Boyle (Mary McLeod), his homeless friend and confidante. When vandalism pushes Arthur to the brink, Max Tarasov (Rick Estberg), the Russian immigrant who owns the DVD store next door, offers to buy the place.
Then Franco Wicks (Darius McCall) hires on and lobbies for healthier menu options, poetry readings and profit sharing. Arthur isn’t so sure about Franco’s ideas, but he feels kinship with the gifted writer who’s put school on hold to pay off debts — gambling debts, as it turns out. Enter Luther Flynn (Mike Fox), a loan shark and exploiter, and his enforcer Kevin Magee (Gerald Inglesby).
While Superior Donuts is funnier and lighter than Tracy Letts’ typical work (August: Osage County), it nevertheless contains mature themes, language and violence. A story for modern times, about community as a substitute for family, it teeters between chill and chilling. Arthur’s story lulls us with introspective calm through snippets of conversation in his foggy present and lucid soliloquies about his past — until reality breaks the hush, demanding he take a stand against the thugs who strong-arm his new friend.
This is a smart show, well staged and well acted. Every actor surpasses the character sketch. Averill is every inch the 1960s’ holdout, deceptively sly and capable under his rumpled appearance. McCall delights with his youthful enthusiasm and mastery of a role he learned in only three weeks. Estberg is flashy and hilarious with his authentic Russian accent and butchered English, bringing a depth of conviction to the comical immigrant who nevertheless commands respect. McLeod wears her duct-taped tiara with dignity. Haley and Panek eclipse their cop personas with genuine personalities. The Mafiosi radiate menace, and Ben Carr captivates in the tiny cameo of the monosyllabic Russian giant Kiril Ivakin.
The show is technically strong as well, with a soundtrack of ambient street noises timed to swell each time the door opens and lighting details that evoke a commercial failure. The costumes speak volumes about their characters, from Lady’s plastic-bag boots to Arthur’s tie-died T-shirt.
My only reservation is the credibility of casting Terry Averill as the main character. Averill is an outstanding actor, but his frail build belies the Pillsbury doughboy image of the aged baker. Add to that his climactic fight scene with hulking Fox (Luther) and the play touches on theater of the absurd. It’s like watching Tony Soprano and Woody Allen in a knock-down drag-out.
Suspend your disbelief in that incongruity, and you’ll see a winner at every level, including insight into urban development, racial tension and the fragmentation of the family.
Director and set designer: Kristofer Kauff. Sound: Ben Cornwell. Lights: Brittany Rankin. Costumes: Jean Berard and Beth Terranova. Running time: two and a half hours plus intermission.
Playing thru March 8 ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm (also 7:30pm Feb. 23) at Colonial Players Theater, Annapolis. $20w/discounts; rsvp: 410-268-7373; www.thecolonialplayers.org.