A quartet of spectacular performances anchors the Metropolitan Playhouse’s presentation of Owen Davis’ extremely timely The Detour.
Davis' 1921 melodious opus to the pursuit of the American dream takes on one mother’s plight to make sure her daughter gets a chance to pursue her dreams. While some of the arguments are period piece quaint, it is the writing’s precise depiction of the common American struggle to better their life that strikes a significant chord.
Helen Hardy is a hard woman, who for ten years has saved and scraped every cent from her and her daughter Kate’s multiple jobs, to amass enough money to send Kate to New York to become an artist. She wants better for her daughter than ro marry a farmer and work her talented hands into a calloused insignificant life.
In contrast to Kate and Helen is Kate's father Stephen. He struggles to have a big farm, one that can be farmed by trucks, and his desire is to keep buying the land around him; when the opportunity to obtain the young Tom Lane’s acres, he jumps at the chance. He asks that more money be taken from Kate’s wages as a store clerk. His world is one where only a man’s dream are important. Tom Lane agrees with him, if only so that Kate, with whom he is in love, stays behind. Tom has spent his fortune opening a garage, and investing on a mechanical future. When the road he has built on is closed, the detour sign plans to ruin all of his dreams.
The play opens creakily, and for a time it feels like we’re watching a period piece. Did people really talk like that? Were those their concerns? It feels dusty; but soon desires give way to a timeless human struggle and as the play heads into its second scene, we witness the talents of a forgotten playwright, to write not just for his time but for times to come. His questions are questions we still ask today. How much do you give to a dream? How much should you sacrifice? What would you give up? It’s the same ground Horton Foote covered years later, and every bit as effective.
The second scene, taking place on the Side Porch is masterfully gripping, the kind of writing that playwrights today are still trying to achieve. We see the four characters struggle to find their ground on an ever shifting set of desires. What does Helen want? Is her dream more important than her daughter's? Is Stephen’s dream more important because he’s a man? Is Tom Lane’s dream of a new future, away from the land, silly? Is Kate sacrificing her own dreams to live out her mother’s? If one of them gets what they want, it’s certain to detour one of the other’s. The first act closes by asking questions that we’re still asking today, especially about women’s rights to pave their own destiny.
The second act continues to elevate these questions, and while it never reaches the heights of tension achieved by the act one closer, it answers all of the questions and dispatches its characters to their fates, with melancholy humor and a reality that is surprisingly affecting.
The strength of the piece is that it is not a message play, but a deep and true portrait of a group of people. Therefore it gives the actors some really great material to play with. Michelle Eugene as Helen Hardy keeps it simple and grounded. This is a woman who disappeared into her struggle and Eugene keeps her notes down to a hum, slowly evolving into a pillar of strength. John Ottavino as Stephen Hardy has the harder role to empathize with, especially for a contemporary audience, which is why I give Ottavino credit for making the character so darn likeable, particularly in an important scene where he attempts to encourage his daughter while fully knowing that she may not have the talent to make it as an artist after all. It’s a tricky balance to achieve and he does so beautifully.
Alex Trow and Rowan Michael Meyer play our young lovers to be, Kate and Tom, and I have to say, they’re both the real thing. Kate doesn’t know herself quite yet, she only knows her mother’s dream for her and so she’s struggling with her personality and Trow handles the demands of the role with the expertise of a veteran. I said it a few months ago when I reviewed her at FringeNYC, and wow, I’ll say it again -- get the right team behind this girl, and she’ll Meryl Streep it with the best of them before long. Same can be said of Meyer, who digs into the role of Tom Lane with uncommon voracious specificity.
I compliment the rest of the cast as well, Mitch Tebo, Andrea Sooch, Micah McCain and Stu Richel, for embodying the period and creating very real if briefly seen characters. Director Laura Livingston followed the edict 90% of directing is in the casting and keeps the staging uncomplicated and honest, allowing the actors to tell us the story. She handles the drama and humor with just the right touch, and while I question the ending moment (which seemed to be played too cruelly) it still sits with me as I write this and the way she handled that first act closing was just right on.
This play is ultimately about dreams, and I believe it wasn’t Owen Davis’ dream for his plays to be forgotten. Especially given their timelessness; I hope this begins a rediscovery of this very talented dramatist.