By AUDREY WELLS
On Thursday, the eve of National Donut Day, the Celebration Company opened its summer season, entertaining a packed house at the Station Theatre with the comic production of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts."
The timing was no doubt coincidental, but seeing the play is a delightful — and healthy — way to honor the worthy holiday, established in 1938 by the Salvation Army as a fundraiser. (If that excuse to see the play doesn't work, come up with another.)
All the action takes place in a small doughnut shop with checkered tablecloths and old family photos hanging on the painted yellow walls, once bright but now faded. A sign over the vintage cash register tells us the business dates from 1950, and Chris Guyotte's set design suits the cozy comedy.
At the start, however, the place has been vandalized, and the graffiti and upturned chairs signal a challenge to the nostalgia.
Even though the play is set in Chicago, the characters give it a local flavor. The shop's owner, the reticent Arthur Przybyszewski, nearly 60 years old, tie-dye-clad and long-haired, inherited the business from his Polish-immigrant parents.
Arthur under-reacts to everything, including the vandalizing of his shop. His father started the business when the neighborhood "uptown was already on the way down," and Arthur seems willing to let it slide to the bottom.
Played with a natural casualness by Lincoln Machula, Arthur hides a troubled history, belied by Machula's sweetly modulated voice but gradually revealed through monologues. The audience listens like his therapist and watches as he gradually opens up to the other characters.
Everything changes when the ebullient, undeterred young Franco Wicks enters the shop and talks himself into a job working for Arthur, cleaning up the ransacked mess even before he is hired. In the role of the talkative, creative Franco, an African-American from the uptown neighborhood, William Anthony Sebastian Rose II nearly steals the show. Franco is demonstrative, and Rose engages the audience completely with his expressiveness.
Franco and Arthur's redemptive relationship is at the heart of the play. They describe each other as 'fatalist" and "optimist," but despite their contrast, these two characters turn out to have a lot in common. Machula and Rose balance each other well.
While the plot and theme have seriousness, the production emphasizes the comedy in Letts' play to enjoyable success. Director Thom Schnarre notes in the program that "'Superior Donuts' is ultimately an homage to Norman Lear-era sitcoms." All successful sitcoms have strong side characters with great comic timing. The same is true in Schnarre's production.
Nina Samii charms us as the vulnerable Irish-American police detective Randy Osteen, who has a crush on Arthur. Her partner, African-American police detective James Bailey, is a kind of straight man — and a Trekkie. Nathon Jones steps into the role unhesitatingly and gets his share of laughs.
Thom Miller is very good as Max Tarasov, a Russian with a DVD business next to the doughnut shop whose mangling of idioms gives us a chuckle. Arthur, he reports to the police, has lately been unproductive, not "on his balls." His nephew, played by Maxwell James Tomaszewski, is effective in his small, mostly nonverbal role as an enforcer.
In the role of thugs, Dar'Keith Lofton and Aaron L. Winston don't get to deliver too many jokes, but we take them seriously, and Lofton's sharp delivery brings the script to life.
As Lady, a destitute old woman, the saddest yet wisest character, Barbara Ridenour avoids any clichs and plays her with directness and authenticity — a quality Lady herself treasures. Lady is the icing on the delicious ensemble.
Audrey Wells is a freelance writer from Urbana.
If you go
What: Celebration Company presents “Superior Donuts,” a dramedy by Tracy Letts, directed by Thom Schnarre, starring Lincoln Machula as Arthur and William Anthony Sebastian Rose II as Franco
When: 8 p.m. June 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14 and 15
Where: Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway Ave., U
Tickets: $10 Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday; $15 Friday and Saturday
Reservations: 384-4000; www.stationtheatre.com