Early in the second act of Superior Donuts, produced by Custom Made Theatre Company, Arthur (Don Wood) explains how his immigrant heritage shaped his consciousness: "The root of the Polish character," he says, "is hopelessness."
In Wood's compelling portrayal, Arthur, a draft-dodging hippie and donut-shop owner in Chicago, shows hopelessness not by waxing funereal but by amiably absenting himself from his own life. He evades not just the draft, but also confrontation, family, emotion, and, where possible, conversation — so much so that when his dingy donut shop is vandalized as the play opens, his blank look and close-lipped smile suggest that crime is a part of his daily routine.
This is in stark contrast to his new assistant, Franco (an adrenalized Chris Marsol), a young black man who barely needs a breath of encouragement before he's spewing hopes and dreams with the linguistic fluidity of the poets he so admires. Franco sees everything — his "great American novel," his gambling problem, the donut shop (Arthur could have poetry readings with "students on they laptops!"), or Arthur's love life — as a means to achieve the American Dream.
Tracy Letts' script has some flaws. Arthur delivers biographical monologues better suited to a playwright's character exploration than a finished product, and in the second act he gets in a long fistfight that even he describes as purposeless. But aspects of the script that could be more damning — the tidy contrast between the two characters, the sentimental nostalgia for an idiosyncratic neighborhood and an American Dream that might not exist anymore, the potentially problematic racial dynamics that come when an older white man saves a younger black man — are mitigated by Letts' naturalistic but weighty dialogue and director Marilyn Langbehn's ensemble.
The same cannot be said of the Shelton Theater's The Rainmaker, which also traffics in dreamers and doubters as well as, unfortunately, cloying sentimentality. Written in the early 1950s, N. Richard Nash's play shares much with The Grapes of Wrath: It's set in the Depression, it takes place in the American West, and it follows a family, the Currys, as drought and desperation render them vulnerable to swindle. But unlike Steinbeck's novel, this play lurches toward a happy ending via the mechanics of melodrama.
The entire plot hinges on daughter Lizzie's (Amanda Gerard-Shelton) looming spinsterhood, a crisis that keeps the male characters tense with worry and ever-alert for a potential husband; the drought, by contrast, is mere fodder for good-natured griping over supper. Lizzie may be homely, but she's forthright and spunky! But not so spunky that she'd think to challenge the norms her brothers (Bret Grantham, John Kiernan) and father (Philip Estrin) impose on her. Oh, wouldn't she be just right for the stoic deputy sheriff (Nick Razo)? Hey, remember the drought? A professional rainmaker (Matt Shelton) is here — maybe we can foist him upon our dangerously unmarried female relative. We don't care if he's an outlaw and a fake; sometimes it's fun to go along with a sham.
This malarkey wouldn't be so painful if the performers, under the direction of Julie Dimas-Lockfeld, made their characters more than cardboard cut-outs. But with few exceptions, this production has only cowboy stereotypes, whether derived from John Wayne, Hank Williams, or Boomhauer from King of the Hill.
Both Superior Donuts and The Rainmaker seek to validate our quintessentially American impulses to dream even in the face of huge societal obstacles. Both fall into the "uplifting drama" category. But only one truly lifts; the other is hoisted by its own rusty machinery, leaving dreamers and doubters alike rooted to the ground.