With ‘Detroit,’ playwright Lisa D’Amour wins acclaim by ‘speaking to a real-life moment’

(Stan Barouh/ ) - From left: Danny Gavigan, Tim Getman and Gabby Fernandez-Coffey in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's production of “Detroit.”

(Stan Barouh/ ) - From left: Danny Gavigan, Tim Getman and Gabby Fernandez-Coffey in Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's production of “Detroit.”

In “Detroit,” the hot-topic drama that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011, nobody says “Democrat” or “Republican.” No one says “Wall Street” or “too big to fail,” though the 2008 economic meltdown feels like bedrock for the play’s two neighboring couples struggling in an urban wasteland.

Yet as the characters grill outdoors and drink too much, it doesn’t take long to realize that “Detroit” — which isn’t even actually set in that poster city for hard times — is no fist-in-the-air protest play.

(Zack Smith) - Playwright Lisa D'Amour.

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“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.

“I’m sure everyone thinks I’m 28,” the 44-year-old says.

D’Amour, born in Minnesota and raised in New Orleans (where her mother’s family has been for generations), took up writing in earnest after an internship at Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Inspired, she went to grad school at the University of Texas and started creating work off-campus in Austin. That’s where she met Katie Pearl, the other half of the PearlDamour performance duo.

“We collaborate with a choreographer, a visual artist or a composer,” D’Amour explains. “The words I write are never the first thing that drive the performance.”

By 2003, PearlDamour had won an Obie Award for “Nita and Zita,” a show about vaudeville sisters that features interviews with their ghosts. D’Amour’s “16 Spells to Charm the Beast” (about a beast peeping at a housewife from across town) and “Red Death” (a fanciful update of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”) had been produced at the small but influential Clubbed Thumb, and were directed by Kauffman.

“It’s such a pleasure for me to see Lisa accepted by the mainstream, because we need Lisa D’Amour in our mainstream,” Kauffman says. “She has a wild imagination.”

By 2004, D’Amour figured her time to be in New York was then or never, so she settled in. In 2005, Katrina drowned New Orleans. D’Amour went back to help family and friends.

“Every story was in my family,” D’Amour says of the Katrina period. “The person who lost their whole house, the person who was under six feet of water, the person who only had two inches of water, the house across the lake where everyone evacuated to.”

She and Connelly have split time between New York and New Orleans ever since, though work sometimes flings them far afield. Connelly was on a job in Hawaii while D’Amour was helping the Woolly team tune up “Detroit.”

For Vreeke, the play’s action boils down to the series of barbecues and, in one couple’s case, a vicious battle with addiction. Several times, Vreeke says there is something about D’Amour’s writing that feels “primitive.”

“There’s no time to breathe,” Vreeke says. “Just about the time you feel the characters can settle down, she introduces an action or accident that changes everything.”

If “Detroit” is political at a remove, its title — and the ongoing struggles of the now-bankrupt Motor City — certainly cues the audience to see it as a timely fable.

“You’re constantly thinking about an American empire based on manufacturing, which has completely gone to waste,” Kauffman says. “You’re thinking that as you’re watching this play about barbecues.”

If D’Amour is creating more conventional plays now, she is also keeping busy with what she calls the “do-it-yourself” projects. PearlDamour is working on a piece about five different American towns named Milton, and on another piece to be performed in the Longwood Meadow at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens.

“It’s crazy now, actually trying to manage both worlds,” D’Amour says. “I love the world of theater that doesn’t have the insane stakes that making money can bring. If you’re trying to do something that doesn’t cost much and people aren’t paying much for, there is something very freeing about that.”

But popularity has its upside, too.

“What was interesting to me about ‘Detroit’ was realizing that when you write something that’s in a little bit more of a recognizable world, speaking to a real-life moment, a political moment or an economic moment, your audience just totally expands,” she says. “That is really interesting to me, just in terms of getting ideas out into the world.”

And my, what big prizes she’s won.

“I felt serious already, but it was like the bar was immediately raised,” D’Amour says of the Duke event that gathered the 2013 class of 20 recipients in the fields of theater, jazz, contemporary dance and interdisciplinary projects. “To be honored for a body of work, and to realize that I HAVE a body of work, and then realizing that there’s tons of time to build on that. The energy and confidence that the award brings is as valuable as the money, in some ways — to keep working, and keep pushing toward the next experiment.”

“Detroit,” by Lisa D’Amour

Through Oct. 6 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.

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