“That’s not my nature,” says playwright Lisa D’Amour, sitting under a patio umbrella in the lobby of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, where “Detroit” runs through Oct. 6.
The lobby is colorfully decked out with indoor-outdoor furniture, mirroring the backyard setting of the play that has trumpeted D’Amour’s name as it has progressed from Chicago to London, New York and productions around the country. D’Amour wrote “Detroit” in a flurry back in 2009; when the play debuted at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in September 2010, it was hailed for having its finger on the pulse of the collapse’s collateral damage.
In the New York Times, Charles Isherwood declared that it “speaks to the fractious, frightened American moment more perceptively than any play I’ve seen on a New York stage.”
Anne Kauffman directed “Detroit” in New York, and she’s also directing the premiere of D’Amour’s “Detroit” companion piece, “Cherokee,” at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater in January. “I think they’re pretty political,” Kauffman says of both scripts. “But the way she approaches politics is fleshy and bloody, not heady and message-y.”
“I hardly see politics at all,” says John Vreeke, director of the Woolly “Detroit.”
That kind of wiggle room seems to be okay with D’Amour.
“I didn’t intentionally set out to write a play about what happens when you suddenly have to reinvent yourself in really precarious financial times,” D’Amour says. Yet the crash plainly fed the play. She recalls noticing that she and her husband, sound designer and composer Brendan Connelly, didn’t feel too hard-hit by the downturn. As itinerant artists, they always lived a close-to-the-bone lifestyle, anyway.
At the same time, she witnessed how upsetting the day-to-day effect could be.
“My dad is 70, and he is one of those people whose retirement has been very impacted by these crashes,” D’Amour says. “He is going to retire now, but man, it’s been a really stressful four years trying to figure it all out. But I think if I were consciously to write about all that, just because of the writer I am, I don’t know if the play would have been as strong.”
The writer she is bears little resemblance to the Lisa D’Amour who, since the joyful noise for “Detroit,” has garnered acclaim and major prizes (a $50,000 Steinberg Playwright Award in 2011, a $225,000 Doris Duke Artists Award this year). Publicly, at least, her profile suddenly fits the term “emerging,” even though she has already established a career characterized not by hit plays cycling through regional theaters, but by experimental collaborations in the Austin, Minneapolis and New York City downtown scenes.