Playwright Lisa D’Amour counts Minneapolis as one of the cities that nurtured her as an artist. She was raised in New Orleans and spends much of her time in New York, but D’Amour spent a crucial period working on her craft as a Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center more than a decade ago. Her work was produced by several local companies.
In 2007, after she moved away, her “Tale of West Texas Marsupial Girl” received a major staging at Children’s Theatre Company.
So D’Amour is understandably psyched to have a play back on a Minneapolis stage. Her off-Broadway hit, “Detroit,” opens at the Jungle Theater on Friday, directed by Joel Sass and featuring John Middleton, Angela Timberman, Anna Sundberg and Tyson Forbes.
“It gives me the chills to be at the Jungle,” D’Amour said by phone from New York. “I lived around the corner when I was in Minneapolis, and it was such a big piece of my experience.”
While “Detroit” marks her Jungle debut, D’Amour worked with Sass in a 2002 production of “16 Spells to Charm the Beast” for Sass’ Mary Worth Theatre Company. It was one of those projects they both can laugh about now.
“We got into this crazy time crunch with that piece and neither of us was satisfied with how it came out,” D’Amour said. “But Joel was someone who was so inspiring to me.”
D’Amour describes “Detroit” as perhaps her most mainstream work. She’s generally favored a little magical realism, some absurdity mixed in with naturalism — in short, a universe that plays by a different rule book. In “Marsupial,” for example, the key character is a girl who has a pouch (like a kangaroo) in which she traps people’s voices.
“Detroit” started in readings at Clubbed Thumb, a small New York theater that develops new work. Polly Carl, the former head of Playwrights’ Center and then director of artistic development at Steppenwolf Theatre, asked D’Amour to bring the work to Chicago.
“It was the right play for them at the right time,” D’Amour said.
A transfer to Broadway fell by the wayside, which did not disappoint D’Amour.
“It’s not exactly a Broadway-style show,” she said. “That’s not something I’m shooting for.”
“Detroit” landed at Playwrights Horizons, the distinguished off-Broadway venue. The play drew rave reviews and has become a popular choice for regional theaters. It also had a production at the National Theatre in London.
The play is set in a suburb of a Midwestern city. Ben and Mary are hunkered down in hard times. They are cheered, though, when two younger and free-spirited folks move into the empty house next door. Sharon and Kenny are fresh out of rehab, but they haven’t lost any of their crazy zeal.
The play’s title and the employment situations of the characters suggest a dark fairy tale on America’s economic struggles. But that wasn’t uppermost in D’Amour’s mind when she started work. It was more about two couples who were “yearning to be the other couple.”
“If you look at all these characters, they each have this thing that, ‘There is this other person I want to be,’ ” she said.
Hard times on the edges
The whole economic malaise hit D’Amour as she was writing in 2009. She and her husband, composer and sound designer Brendan Connelly, had survived as artists usually do — cobbling together work, grants, projects. The well ran a little dry, and D’Amour found herself writing from the edge of the worst recession since the 1930s, and suddenly “Detroit” seemed an apt umbrella for the play.
“The title dropped in halfway through the writing,” she said. “No one [in the play] is talking about the economy, but it became the foundation and the peripheral energy of the play.”
The sweet irony of “Detroit” is that it’s given D’Amour more financial security. Theaters have begun to pay more attention to her work — which is a double-edged sword.
“This is not the limelight I expected for myself and I don’t know if I can follow that up,” D’Amour said. “My plays are very different.”
Even in “Detroit,” she said, audiences have suggested to her that Sharon and Kenny aren’t real — they’re specters.
“And I say, ‘Maybe,’ ” she said. “There is a sense of the supernatural, that slight edge. I still think there is a production out there waiting to happen that is even stranger.”
Whether that is at the Jungle remains to be seen. D’Amour hopes to drop in mid-run to have a look at what Sass has wrought.
“Joel has his own style, so I’m really curious to see,” she said. “I was super involved in Chicago and at the National. But it’s a lot of time and at some point you have to move on.”