Saturday, August 2, 2014

Ron Spencer bows out, riveting our attention onstage as usual, with 'Superior Donuts'

All too few people who withdraw into a shell after life has knocked them about get the chance to emerge afresh, prodded by a  fortuitous  personal encounter. In Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts,"  Arthur Przybyszewski is one of the lucky ones.

In the final production of its silver-anniversary season, Theatre on the Square presents the story of a Chicago doughnut-shop proprietor whose sugary old-school product contrasts with his sour existence in a declining neighborhood. Ron Spencer, in his local swan song with the company he founded and has directed since 1988, is Arthur.

Spencer has challenged himself in nearly every theatrical capacity with TOTS, and can boast a host of triumphs as he retires to his longtime getaway spot in Mexico. I remember with particular fondness his portrayal of the martyred British scientist Alan Turing in "Breaking the Code." In addition to the full-bore intensity of his acting talent, Spencer was always memorable for two physical qualities: piercing, expressive eyes and a smoke-tinged, experience-tested baritone voice.

Franco works on Arthur to boost his sagging zest for life.
Everything is brought to bear in his portrayal of Arthur, who steps outside the action from time to time to fill the audience in on a life encased in pain. Promising to release him is the unexpected appearance of Franco Wicks, a job-seeker from the 'hood with a suspiciously selfless enthusiasm for transforming everything about Arthur and Superior Donuts.

The rapport between Spencer and Daniel Martin, who plays Franco, electrified the theater at the show's next-to-last performance Friday night. It followed an opening scene that seemed to be feeling its way a bit, with our introduction to the shop's habitues: a couple of cops, a gentle, elderly down-and-outer called Lady, and a blustery Russian emigre businessman with designs on Arthur's location.

Letts' gift for comic repartee attains giddy heights as Arthur and Franco get to know each other. Daunted and numb after he arrives to find the shop vandalized one morning, Arthur needs a lot of persuasion to entertain Franco's ambitious ideas. Spencer and Martin feed off this rich material gloriously, as the shop is spruced up and an unlikely friendship develops.

We've seen in popular culture, mostly movies, variations on the theme of a streetwise and otherwise wise black buddy helping a troubled white character. But something almost needy in Franco's assistance sends a signal that he's on the edge of personal disaster. The atmosphere of comical banter stops cold as a couple of menacing figures visit the shop one day to remind Franco of his outsize gambling debts.

Letts pulls the drama back from cliche with this turn of events. The second act — following a quarrel in which Arthur deflates Franco's fantasy about the destiny of his Great American Novel — works through the glum doughnut man's transformation.

Fleshing out the story of two men's trial in the urban crucible is an appealing cast of Superior customers: Jean Adams as the wistful, hard-of-hearing Lady, Jim Lucas as the crude DVD-shop proprietor without a modicum of tact, and Bridget Schlebecker and Al Watson as uneasily paired foot-patrol partners. From the outside comes the heavy-handed bookie Luther,  blaming his ulcer on a gift for empathy that unsurprisingly pulls up short when he's owed money. Scott D. Sawyer had the right chilling tone of good manners draped over brutality, like ball bearings stuffed inside a soft sock.

Spencer and Martin displayed consistency as friends through both crossed-fingers euphoria and rough times, offering support even when it is least welcome, but most needed. Their inspired interaction provides most of what "Superior Donuts" requires to succeed as a landmark in the history of one of Indianapolis' gutsiest theaters.