The power of hope & community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts

Photo by Shaun Benson: Robert Persichini and Nabil Rajo in Superior Donuts

Coal Mine Theatre continues its 2016-17 season with the Canadian premiere of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, directed by Ted Dykstra, and opening last night to a packed house and a standing ovation at its home at 1454 Danforth Ave., Toronto.

When we first see Superior Donuts, the shop appears to have been abandoned. The shelves are empty, there’s litter strewn across the counter and floor, chairs and stools overturned, and the word “Pussy” has been spray painted in neon orange on the chalkboard green wall. As the play opens, though, we learn it’s been vandalized; and Max (Alex Poch-Goldin), who owns the neighbouring DVD store, is giving his account to police officers Randy Osteen (Darla Biccum) and James Bailey (Michael Blake) after calling it in. We also learn from Max that Superior Donuts owner Arthur (Robert Persichini) has been absent lately, and hasn’t opened the shop in a couple of days, as he mourns the loss of his ex-wife.

Arthur arrives as Max is finishing up with the police, already slow moving and numb as he takes in the damage, eventually realizing he’s missed his coffee delivery, so has no coffee to offer anyone. Left alone to tidy up, he’s roused by an insistent and persistent knock on the locked door; a kid responding to his help wanted notice. Arthur reluctantly opens the door to Franco (Nabil Rajo), a fast-talking young man with seemingly boundless energy; and after an unusual and certainly creative job interview, Franco is hired. Meanwhile, Franco has troubles of his own; bookie Luther (Ryan Hollyman) and his muscle Kevin (Jon Lachlan Stewart) pay him a visit after Kevin sees him working at the shop. Franco has a large gambling debt, and Luther is under extreme pressure from the powers that be—he wants his money now and the clock is running out for Franco.

Superior Donuts is the last of a dying breed of beloved mom and pop stores in an increasingly gentrified neighbourhood, where Starbucks and Whole Foods are popping up and challenging businesses that have been fixtures for years. It’s also an island of misfit toys, with its own cast of quirky, multicultural characters. There’s local regular Lady (Diana Leblanc), a struggling alcoholic with a love of red lipstick; and the outspoken Russian Max, who has big plans for expanding his DVD shop into an electronics empire and wants to buy the donut shop so he can fulfill his dream—these two get free coffee and donuts. We also get to know the two cops: Randy comes from a sports-loving family full of  brothers and cops, and has an eye for Arthur; and James and his wife are Star Trek fans who enjoy cosplay at fan conventions. And, while he’s largely silent with the others, Arthur speaks to us throughout in wistful, heartfelt and nostalgic monologues—personal history anecdotes filled with notes of regret.

Franco is full of ideas for improvement for Superior Donuts, from healthier menu choices to poetry and reading events. He also has ideas for improving Arthur, and sets out to be both style consultant and matchmaker. And he’s just finished writing the great American novel, written long-hand on notebooks and loose leaf over the course of seven years, an opus bound with a string. The kid is full of hope—something that Arthur has long been lacking—and as the relationship between Arthur and Franco grows, Franco’s enthusiasm becomes contagious and ideas start brewing in Arthur’s head about who they can talk to about publishing Franco’s book. He even decides to do something about Randy. Then, his despair, doubt and pessimism get the better of him—and Arthur lashes out at Franco’s youthful industry and optimism.

But when something happens to Franco, Arthur is spurred to action. Confronting Luther and Kevin, with the help of Max and his young relative Kiril (Paul Dods), Superior Donuts becomes the ground for one last fight.

Outstanding work from the cast; each a masterful storyteller as he/she speaks for his/her character. Persichini gives a profoundly moving performance as Arthur, a gentle giant who fled to Canada to evade the draft, returning to take over the family business established by his father the year he was born. Now deeply saddened by the passing of his ex-wife Magda and full of guilt at having lost touch with his daughter Joanie, his life is full of disappointment and regret, leaving him in hopelessness and despair—until Franco enters his life. Rajo is a delightful spark plug as Franco; a mercurial, smart and irreverent young man, there’s more to him than the hip, smart-ass kid he presents. A thoughtful, generous soul, his sense of hope is put to the test. Great chemistry, banter and candor in the Arthur/Franco two-handers.

Leblanc gives a lovely performance as the fragile, bird-like Lady; and the mutual love and care that Lady and Arthur have for each other are evident in some beautifully tender moments between them. Poch-Goldin is hilariously engaging as the blunt Max; he’s a go big or go home kind of guy who says what he thinks—and fiercely loyal. Biccum and Blake make a great pair as the police officer partners Randy and James. Biccum gives Randy some nice, gentle layers beneath the tomboy cop exterior; longing for something beyond her family legacy of sports and being on the job, she likes Arthur a lot but is too shy to go for it. And Blake brings an officer and a gentleman vibe to James; a good sport about the teasing from his friends and colleagues about his love of Star Trek, he’s a genuinely good man, out to serve and protect.

Hollyman brings a great edge of desperation and ruthlessness to Luther; Stewart’s Kevin is classic bad boy from the hood; and Dods is impressive as the ripped Kiril, a newly arrived immigrant with little English and a sweet soul under those abundant muscles.

The power of hope and community to build a dream in the sharply funny, poignant, uplifting Superior Donuts.

Superior Donuts continues to February 26; drop by the Coal Mine Theatre website for ticket info or purchase tickets directly online. Book in advance for this one folks—it’s an incredible show and an intimate venue with general seating. Please note the 7:30pm curtain time for evening performances; box office opens at 6:45pm.

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SummerWorks: Brave, raw & moving story of incest survival in The Devil You Know

the devil you know
Rielle Ritchie & Sarah Irankhah

The L’Amoreaux Collegiate Institute production of The Devil You Know, written/directed by Wendy Krekeler is the Toronto Regional Showcase selection for a SummerWorks/Sears Ontario Drama Festival partnership. The show opened last night for a three-show run at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre in the Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement.

Based on a true story, Krekeler and the real-life Rachel started writing the play a year ago as part of Rachel’s process of coming to terms with her abuse – the resulting script giving a voice to her broken silence during the writing of the play and her work on recovery.

The cast of The Devil You Know includes: Darla Biccum, Jonelle Gunderson, Sarah Irankhah, Wendy Krekeler, Karen Lee, Rielle Ritchie and Muhammad Tameem; several of the cast are high school students or recent grads. The play also includes original music by Ritchie – some lovely, haunting and fervent cello and guitar arrangements. And the set design, by Ritchie and Cindy Bang, features some beautifully painted unit cubes (used to create furniture), each with eerie black and white imagery: one an ink blot design that appears bird-like, but also like the face of a menacing man, another two have a bird with eyes on its wings, and the other two a raven and a skeleton hand.

Nice work from the entire cast, with a few stand-outs: Ritchie gives a strong performance as Rachel, who seeks help when her suicidal thoughts get too close to the bone; Ritchie finds a nice balance between Rachel’s vulnerability and strength as she struggles to deal with her abusive home life and subsequent recovery process. Irankhah is solid, warm and nurturing, yet gently challenging, as Rachel’s therapist – everything you’d want a therapist to be. And Gunderson shows a lovely range in her performance as three supporting characters, giving an extremely well-crafted and moving performance as Franka, an incest survivor sharing an account of her experience.

The back of The Devil You Know program has contact info for the Kids Help Phone. Like the incest survivor characters in the play, there are kids out there in the real world – like the real-life Rachel – who need someone to listen and someone to help. And a play like this one helps give those kids a voice – and is eye-opening for an audience. It’s not always an easy play to watch, but it’s a very worthwhile experience.

The Devil You Know is a brave, raw and moving account of one young woman’s struggle to survive incest – respectfully and truthfully told by a fine cast.

The Devil You Know has two more performances: tonight (Friday, August 8) at 7:30pm and Sunday, August 10 at 1:00pm.