Sometimes, after seeing a play it sits with you and ferments. That is exactly the case with Superior Donuts since opening night on Thursday October 1st, 2009. The play has churned my thoughts and prompted me to come to the conclusion that Superior Donut is one of the most important plays to come along in years. It cements Tracy Letts as one of America's most important and vibrant playwrights.
So what is it about Superior Donuts that makes it so important? In order to understand what I mean I need to connect some dots of our cultural development over the past 6 decades. (Caveot-I am not an historian.)
In the Fifties, Rock 'N Roll music shook the world. It woke America up from the complacency it had fallen into as it recovered from WWII. Young Americans flocked to to the music as it fed their sense of rebellion and need for individuality.
In the Sixties, the rebelliousness of American youth began to take action in the form of draft resistance/evasion and social protest was used to express young Americans' dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement. At the same time, the drug culture began to take root as did the sexual revolution. People began to feel entitled to their sexual freedom and expressed it, slowly influencing our moral codes. The Government took a turn to the left with the election of JFK, Women's Liberation found form in The Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Movement asserted the need to address racial discrimination. And possibilities were endless as we sent a man to the moon.
In the Seventies we saw the deepening of this expression of individuality through further embracing of freer sexual behavior and drug use. Our television shows glamorized criminal behavior and our economy began the shift towards a service economy eschewing manufacturing. The psychological effect of the loss of manufacturing independence would slowly erode our collective individual confidence. At the same time, social issues which had not been prevalent started to gain momentum. Abortion was legalized, the first Gay Pride March took place in NYC and Nixon let us know that "If the President does it, it's not illegal." And, personal computers were introduced to the world along with fiber-optics which would revolutionize communications.
In the Eighties the Reagan Era took hold and we believed that serving the few would benefit the many. Reaganomics, proving to be terribly wrong over time, created the Entitled Class. Although those with money in society had always had power, now they had the backing of the US Treasury to tell all in the world that they had the power. "Greed is Good" became our national mantra with Donald Trump and Michale Milken as symbols of our money focused culture.
In the Nineties great changes took place in the world due to the uprising of the individual. Germany unified, The Soviet Union fell, while high income countries experienced unprecedented growth. The US economy exploded and the Dow tripled in value over a ten year period. Al Qaeda began serious attacks on US soil. Bill Clinton gave the impression of being the President of the people. He wanted to help all Americans while he privately, or not so, served his own needs in the Oval Office. Lobbyists took control of our government and a new breed of political operative was born. Karl Rove.
Since 2000 we have seen the cultural entitlement of the individual embraced and exploited in the Government. George Bush's administration took advantage our our fears and let us know that if you have money and power you can do anything you want. A sense of anything goes amongst the financial industry was embraced and the creation of false wealth through the manipulation of paper thin value divided the country even further into the haves and the have-nots. A real sense of futility crept into the hearts of citizens who felt that they had no say in how the country was run. People felt their votes were worthless. We also saw the government use fear to drive their agenda through the legislative body. We saw ultimate individual sacrifices made in response to tragedy but couldn't find ways to help our neighbors in everyday life. Along comes Obama with a message that it is our responsibility to take care of each other. To serve our country and make our nation stronger for it. Opposition to his ideals has come in the form of claims that our country is turning into a socialist society. The power of the few is being threatened by the ideals of altruism. We are in the midst of an intense internal struggle which is dividing our country. Culturally we are experiencing the greatest growth in our history as we struggle with letting go of our self-centered nature and learning to think of our long-term survival.
Then Tracy Letts writes Superior Donuts. The play follows the story of a man, Arthur Przybyszewski, who is trapped in his past. He can only see the world through his limited vision of himself. He feels entitled to being an individual and being true to his morals and ethics. However, he is crippled by the haze of self absorption which began, for him, in the 60's. Until one day, a young man, Franco Wicks, appears in his life and wakes him up. Arthur learns the most valuable lesson in his life. Being selfless and acting in the interest of another person helps him overcome his complacency, embrace his responsibilities and inject hope back into his and Franco's life. The play shows the audience how helping a friend for no personal gain except self growth and satisfaction is a powerful way to live one's life. In a time when we are struggling to embrace this very notion as a Nation, Tracy Letts shows us the value of selflessness. He encapsulates, and I do believe unintentionally, what our society needs most, in a beautiful and entertaining way. This is why audiences are embracing the play and why they won't be able to stop thinking about it once they leave the theater.