Jeff Daniels has created sixteen other plays, but Flint is his first to go hardcore political. It suits him. From the buzz in the audience on opening night, it looks like he has a hit on his hands. As usual, the audience was checkered with Purple Rose repertory actors, who often show up as an exercise in ensemble support. But this time Wayne David Parker, Jim Porterfield, and others were milling around before the curtain went up on high alert, sharing the crowd’s electric mood.
In Flint two couples–one black, one white–put a face on the city’s descent into hell, and whew!–my hat is off to you, Mr. Daniels. Finding the power of archetype, without straying into the maudlin simplicity of stereotype, is a dangerous business. The men are disenfranchised factory rats. One now works for minimum wage at Walmart; the other can’t bring himself to do that, and drinks. One is married to a white-trash ex-stripper, the other to a strong black woman who finds solace in Jesus–there are racially charged lines in this play that I wouldn’t write unless I were going into the witness protection program. And a spine-chilling theatrical device speaks louder than any of the lines: various characters occasionally and nonchalantly draw from the faucet and down a glass of tan-colored water. The acting quartet of Lynch R. Travis, Cassaundra Freeman, David Bendena, and Rhiannon Ragland is phenomenal. They’re also, frequently, hilarious.
I couldn’t make any historical sense of this play: Flint’s glide from Eisenhower-era prosperity to a burned-out cauldron of racial tension, demoralized neighborhoods, and gutted infrastructure is telescoped here into something that takes place in about half a generation. Several people in an audience talkback during preview week apparently also found this unsettling. Director Guy Sanville explained to that crowd (this was related to me by a friend) that while Daniels could have made the story more historically plausible by making all the characters senior citizens, he made them thirty-somethings with young children to emphasize how Flint’s past and future legacy are intertwined. The time warping worked for me, and it worked for my friend, though I wish I’d had the benefit of Sanville’s explanation beforehand–I spent too much time wondering what odd pocket of history Daniels was mining in this otherwise dead-on realistic fable.
Purple Rose is a huge reservoir of talent and has, time after time, tried to launch plays written by its own talent. Daniels’ contributions, like most plays that have premiered at the Purple Rose, have mostly been competent, but nothing coming out of the Purple Rose has begged for replication elsewhere. Flint may be the one.
The show runs through Saturday, March 10.