Much of the pleasure of going to the Detroit Repertory Theater, for this Ann Arborite, anyway, lies in its scrappy, welcoming ambience. Easy to reach from the Lodge freeway, this 55-year-old theater provides an intimate showcase for new plays with mixed casts (black and white, professional and amateur) on an otherwise bleak block. And it practically crows its delight at its against-all-odds survival. “The Rep is Worth it–Pledge,” declares its modest, non-glossy brochure. Long-time black residents have a sense of ownership; church groups regularly buy discounted tickets to fundraise, or just socialize. Artistic director Bruce Millan, a gracefully aging founder, tends bar and makes a personal pitch before each performance for the modest contributions–“just a dollar a week!”–that have kept the lights on through Detroit’s hard times. For big spenders, $3 a week entitles donors to buy two tickets for the price of one. Considering that they cost just $20 to start with ($17 in advance), that’s a bargain indeed.
Taking Care of Mimi (through June 24) is typical Rep fare. Written by newcomer Marilynn Barner Anselmi, it’s an ensemble production with a black and biracial cast, a contemporary setting, and humor leavening an essentially grim story–the suspicious death of a difficult and demented matriarch. While good-natured Detective Helms (not, of course, to be confused with “Holmes,” and played by David Glover) investigates the death of Mimi (Barbara Jacobs-Smith), we cut to flashbacks of Mimi’s household–slow-witted, compassionate daughter Harriet (nicknamed “Oops” and gracefully played by Nicole Haskins); her haughty, glamorous sister, Susan (Angela King); Susan’s good-hearted, pothead son Hal (Scott Norman).
Oops works for a veterinarian, a venue that leads easily to comparisons between the mercy killings of sick animals and Mimi’s prolonged, desolate existence (though she does seem to get some pleasure out of bedeviling her kids). As in every Rep production I’ve seen, the actors inhabit their roles with confidence and charisma. If I had to choose a favorite, I’d go for the (deceptively?) meek Oops; Nicole Haskins possesses a singularly lovely voice and a face that poignantly communicates the plight of a grown child tasked with caring for an angry, childlike parent.
When the actors take their bows, their visible pleasure brings home the delight of an intimate theater that more than makes up in sincerity what it lacks in glamour. As my friends and I were pulling out of the (well-monitored) parking lot, I spotted Scott Norman getting into his own small Chevy.
“Loved your acting!” I yelled.
He grinned, shouted “Thanks!” and we all drove jauntily into the Detroit night.