Chatting With Lisa L'Amour About Her Latest Play, Detroit

Lisa D’Amour’s play, Detroit (which has nothing to do with the Motor City, except for the unease about economic instability the word can trigger) began with her wanting to put two very different couples next to each other. There’s Mary and Ben — Mary is a paralegal, and Ben has been laid off and talks about starting his own business as a financial consultant — while Kenny and Sharon are in recovery from drug addiction, living a furniture-less existence in his dead aunt’s house.

[jump] “They almost want to be each other,” D'Amour says to SF Weekly, about the neighbors. “Mary and Ben have followed all the rules, but they’re stuck. Kenny and Sharon almost represent freedom or someone who has taken a completely different path. Each couple is looking to each other for clues to how life could be different.”

D’Amour grew up in New Orleans, but the play is set in a nameless suburb. She wanted a place where foreclosures and McMansions could co-exist — the landscape of 2009 when she wrote the play, she says. In Detroit, suburban trappings seem ominous — the screen door keeps sticking at frustrating times, and the patio umbrella keeps closing, whomping one character in the play on the head. D’Amour says she wanted to show how these things that people think will make them feel safe and good can fail us and stand in for bigger things.

“Mary and Ben can’t really talk about anything,” she says. “She’s not happy about how he’s handling his unemployment, and he hides from her how terrified he is. They can’t argue about their marriage, but they can argue about the umbrella.”

All the scenes in the play take place in one of the couples’ backyards. The characters in the play are dying to connect, D’Amour says, so they leave their houses in search of that connection.

“No one is staying cooped up inside with the air conditioning,” she said. “They’re literally putting themselves out there.”

Detroit won an Obie and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Along with Aurora’s production, the play is also in New Orleans and Denver as well as playing at two places in Germany and two in Australia. Its popularity has to do with taking on economic insecurity, D’Amour thinks. And something else.

“I think there’s a feeling in the play of yearning for a self you know is there, but you don’t know how to access it,” she says. “It’s sort of a yearning for a wild self.”

Detroit, through July 26 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison, Berkeley, $25-50, 510-843-4822.

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