By Daniel Skora
Flint Michigan was once a vital and vibrant part of the USA’s automobile empire. In whole or in part, Buicks, Chevys and Cadillacs rolled off the assembly line to supply our nation’s transportation needs. But in the years leading up to the millennium, not only did the kind of vehicles desired by the American driver undergo a change, so too did the economics of the automobile industry. Plants closed, jobs became hard to find, and those that remained paid nowhere near the scale of the ones that had been lost.
To add insult to injury, as the city’s economic conditions faltered and people left the city in staggering numbers, a new and more debilitating calamity hit those that remained; the water that flowed through Flint’s water taps began running yellow and brown. Against this backdrop of poverty, unemployment and tainted water comes the Purple Rose’s production of “Flint”, the latest play by actor, playwright and Purple Rose founder Jeff Daniels.
Mitchell (Lynch R. Travis) and Olivia (Casaundra Freeman) are an African American couple making do on Mitchell’s minimum wage salary at the local Walmart and the small income Olivia brings in driving the church bus. They also have a baby, and though times are hard and Olivia often expresses discontent for those responsible for the condition the city finds itself in, there is a spirituality about this couple that gives them the kind of faith and hope that can only be found in the Good Book.
Eddie (David Bendena) and Karen (Rhiannon Ragland) are neighbors with whom Mitchell and Olivia have been friends with for years. Both are white. Eddie had a good paying working in the plants before he lost his job. He refuses to take any job that pays less than he earned at the auto plant and spends his days drinking and complaining. His wife Karen is a former stripper who would like her old job back but has been told she’s too old. With two girls in need of support, Eddie’s drinking, complaining, and lack of a job have put a strain on the marriage.
The entire play (running time approximately 80 minutes and performed without intermission) takes place in the kitchen of Mitchell and Olivia’s home. The spousal conversation between Mitchell and Olivia that opens the show is soon interrupted by the arrival of the volatile Eddie. On one level, Mitchell and Eddie communicate like brothers. They share a beer, talk over old times, and plot get-rich-quick schemes, like Mitchell wanting to produce bumper stickers from the sayings he’s been accumulating in his notepad, and Eddie declaring that there might be a market for bottled air. But one beer quickly leads to another, and Eddie’s talk of the good old days soon moves to anger over the not-so-pleasant present. Enter the perturbed and about to become very distraught Karen, and more than likely this will be the last day the four ever gather together as friends.
“Flint” is the oftentimes amusing and highly dramatic story of two couples caught up in real life hardships over which they have little control and that will continue to erode what quality of life they possess. Director Guy Sanville lets his accomplished cast do what they do best; the cast is uniformly excellent, with Bendena having the play’s salient character. Bendena already has an impressive list of characterizations to his acting credit, and Eddie may be his best to date.
“Flint” is a play not about bad water or the reasons a once proud city has become a shell of its old self. The story behind the economics of the automobile industry and the politics that allowed bad water to flow are topics that in themselves don’t make very good drama. Rather, the play rightly focuses on two families and the differing ways each adapts to the crises. The play is entertaining throughout, and takes place against stories that have been on the front pages of Michigan newspapers for years.
Regarding Eddie: lacking any corporate or political villains, the big reveal necessary to give the play its final dramatic punch has been assigned to Eddie. Say what you will about him; he’s a blowhard, a buck passer, and cruel when intoxicated. You wouldn’t want to ride in a taxi with him or have him babysit your kids. But his sins are venial compared to the one he’s saddled with at the end. Nothing in the course of the play telegraphs this ending, and Eddie didn’t deserve to be used so capriciously.
Set design for “Flint” is by Vincent Mountain. Costume design is by Shelby Newport, lighting by Dana L. White, and sound by Tom Whalen. Properties design is by Danna Segrest and stage manager for the production is Thomas Macias. The show runs through March 10th. Ticket reservations may be made by calling the theatre’s box office at 1.734.433.7673 or going online at www.purplerosetheatre.org. The Purple Rose Theatre is located at 137 Park Street in Chelsea. Exit at 159 if you’re coming west on I-94.