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Warning: After watching this play, you may be compelled to drive to the nearest donut shop, thereupon eating your fill of bear-claws, maple bars, and old fashioned glazed. At least, that was the effect the play had on me. There's quite a bit of donut-talk, and we're easily persuaded, especially when it comes to dessert.
However, Superior Donuts, a 2009 comedy written by Tracy Letts, offers a bit more than sweet talk.
About the Playwright
Tracy Letts, son of author Billie Letts, is most famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County. He has also written Bug and Man from Nebraska. The aforementioned plays blend dark comedy with an even darker exploration of the human condition. Superior Donuts, in contrast, is lighter fare. Although the play does delve into issues of race and politics, many critics consider Donuts closer to a TV sitcom rather than a brilliant piece of theater. Sitcom comparisons aside, the play features lively dialogue and a final act that is ultimately uplifting, albeit a bit predictable at times.
The Basic Plot
Set in modern-day Chicago, Superior Donuts depicts the unlikely friendship between a down-and-out donut shop owner and his enthusiastic employee, who also happens to be an aspiring author with a serious gambling problem. Franco, the young writer, wants to update the old shop with healthy choices, music, and friendlier service. However, Arthur, the shop owner, wants to remain set in his ways.
The main character is Arthur Przybyszewski. (No, we didn't just mash my fingers on the keyboard; that is how his last name is spelled.) His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Poland. They opened the donut shop which eventually Arthur took over. Making and selling donuts has been his lifelong career. Yet, even though he is proud of the food he makes, he has lost his optimism for running the day-to-day business. Sometimes, when he doesn't feel like working, the shop stays closed. Other times, Arthur doesn't order enough supplies; when he has no coffee the local police, he relies on the Starbucks across the street.
Throughout the play, Arthur delivers reflective soliloquies in between the regular scenes. These monologs reveal several events from his past that continue to haunt his present. During the Vietnam War, he moved to Canada to avoid the draft. In his middle-age years, Arthur lost contact with his young daughter after he and his wife divorced. Also, at the beginning of the play, we learn that Arthur's ex-wife recently died. Even though they had been apart, he is deeply affected by her death, thus adding to his lethargic nature.
The Supporting Character
Every crotchety curmudgeon needs a pollyanna to balance things out. Franco Wicks is the young man who enters the donut shop and ultimately brightens Arthur's perspective. In the original cast, Arthur is portrayed by Michael McLean, and the actor poignantly wears a T-shirt with a yin-yang symbol. Franco is the yin to Arthur's yang. Franco walks in seeking a job, and before the interview is over (although the young man does most of the talking, so it's not a typical interview) Franco has not only landed the job, he has suggested a variety of ideas that could improve the store. He also wants to move up from the register and learn how to make the donuts. Eventually, we learn that Franco is enthusiastic not simply because he is an ambitious up-and-coming businessman, but because he has huge gambling debts; if he doesn't pay them off, his bookie will make sure that he gets hurt and loses a few fingers.
"America Will Be"
Arthur resists and occasionally resents Franco's improvement suggestions. However, the audience gradually learns that Arthur is a pretty open-minded, educated guy. When Franco wagers that Arthur would not be able to name ten African American poets, Arthur starts off slowly, naming popular choices like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, but then he finishes strong, rattling off the names and impressing his young employee.
When Franco confides in Arthur, revealing that he has been working on a novel, a turning point is reached. Arthur is genuinely curious about Franco's book; once he finishes reading the novel he takes a more vested interest in the young man. The book is titled "America Will Be," and although the audience never learns much about the novel's premise, the book's themes profoundly impact Arthur. By the play's end, the protagonist's sense of courage and justice have been reawakened, and he is willing to make great sacrifices to save Franco's physical and artistic life.