If there’s one thing that the two economically struggling couples in Jeff Daniels’ newest world premiere play agree on, it’s this: “Flint is about money.”
Indeed. Though you might come to the Purple Rose Theatre expecting to see a story about the (still ongoing) water crisis, Daniels sets “Flint” in the time just before the city made national headlines, in order to explore how the beleaguered city’s history played a prominent role in its tragic present.
Set in the home of former-auto-line-worker-turned-Walmart-clerk Mitchell (Lynch R. Travis) and his wife, church bus driver Olivia (Casaundra Freeman), “Flint” takes place over the course of an unseasonably hot September afternoon in 2014. Mitchell’s friend and neighbor Eddie (David Bendena), once a GM line manager, is still waiting for a job worthy of his talents to come along, while his wife Karen (Rhiannon Ragland), now deemed too old to go back to stripping, worries about how she and her daughters will continue to survive without a steady source of income.
Though “Flint,” directed by Guy Sanville, runs just 75 minutes long, it tackles wildly complex issues – with mixed results. One of the biggest problems plaguing “Flint” is its tendency toward heavy-handedness. Indeed, the play’s opening moment, wherein each character stands in his/her own spotlight, and Eddie, going last, crows “I’m the guy you forgot about” (he might as well be wearing a “Trump voter” T-shirt), broadcasts what’s to come; in one scene, Mitchell and Olivia together recite, when remembering what she said to him when he lost his job at the plant, a considerably big chunk of the “The Lord is my shepherd” Psalm; and the play’s coda, highlighting a glass of yellow water drawn from the tap, feels similarly too on-the-nose.
On the positive side of the ledger, characters like these, who are left to struggle and somehow remake their lives when long-standing, good-paying manufacturing jobs disappear, are characters we don’t often see (and thus hear from) on stage. Give Daniels credit for shining a light on individuals too often rendered invisible in America because they lack money and power. And when “Flint”’s scripted conversations feel most organic, and ask its most pertinent, intriguing questions, the play hits its stride for a time.
Specifically, an ongoing discussion about Mitchell’s reluctant willingness to work for minimum wage, with no benefits, at WalMart, and Eddie’s refusal to apply for a similar job because he feels it’s beneath a man of his abilities. “No offense,” Eddie regularly adds.
“You can’t define yourself by what you do for a living,” Mitchell tells him. But Mitchell, in a solid marriage with a new baby, has learned to divorce what he does from who he is as a man, while Eddie – at war with his wife, slipping into alcoholism, and clinging hard to his sense of injustice and entitlement – cannot do the same. “It’s about not giving up,” Mitchell says of his choice to take a job and provide for his family, even if the pay is low. But for Eddie, “not giving up” means something else entirely. It means waiting for a job befitting his skills to come along – even if it kills him.
As someone whose identity was blown apart two years ago by a layoff in a dying industry, I recognized all too well the push/pull of Mitchell’s and Eddie’s perspectives on this point. Perhaps that’s why “Flint” most sparked to life for me in these moments. Yet because the play’s (overwrought) climax focuses on “unmasking” the full extent of Eddie’s racism – though it seemed to be in plain sight throughout – “Flint” would seem Daniels’ attempt to point us to that specific piece of the city’s puzzle. And it’s a significant piece, don’t get me wrong. But it seems really odd that Mitchell and Olivia wouldn’t have noticed signs of Eddie’s bigotry, after years and years of being neighbors and “friends”; and why does Eddie keep spending his time with people he supposedly finds repugnant?
Yes, resentment and misplaced blame can build over time, but that it suddenly breaks out on this hot September afternoon seems a contrivance. Plus, if part of the reason for putting this “guy you forgot about” on a stage is to understand how and why he developed the worldview he has, inviting the audience and the characters to have a laugh at Eddie for not knowing that “The Star Spangled Banner” and the National Anthem are the same thing seems ill-advised and cringey, to say the least.
As always with the Purple Rose, though, the quality of the production itself is solid, and the people on stage are pros. Ragland broadcasts Karen’s disgust with Eddie upon her first entrance, by way of a cutting stare, a slow, deliberate gait, and an angry fling of a beer bottle cap into the sink. She’s a woman who’s reached her breaking point, and we know that from the get-go. Bendena, meanwhile, occasionally flirts with caricature, but that’s hard to avoid when playing a character like Eddie, who fancies himself a cut above those around him, even as he’s drowning.
Generally, Bendena’s intensity imbues Eddie with a palpable sense of a man whose heart was irrevocably broken by the world long ago. And Travis and Freeman do marvelous work together, fortifying and joking with each other while also standing each other back up in hard times. The loving core of their characters’ marriage is what keeps them afloat in Flint, and while Daniels’ reliance upon the couple’s religious faith feels a bit predictable, it nonetheless provides the characters with an additional source of support that’s otherwise lacking within the country at large.
Set designer Vincent Mountain makes Olivia and Mitchell’s kitchen – complete with dingy old cabinetry. a sun-faded area rug, and a handed-down dining room set (Danna Segrest designed the show’s props) – the play’s main arena, with a porch’s framework as the backdrop. Dana L. White’s lighting helps to signal the play’s one flashback, as well as the darkening of both the afternoon and the gathering’s general mood; Shelby Newport’s costume design underlines the ways in which Karen, though beaten down, still tries to make herself feel sexy, while Olivia is in a new mom’s comfort-survival mode, and Eddie wears a worn baseball hat, with a bent bill, like it’s a uniform. Finally, Tom Whalen provides the atmospheric sound design, including baby cries, cars coming and going, and a neighbor that doesn’t take kindly to Eddie’s drunken, offensive singing.
Near the end of “Flint,” Mitchell tells Eddie that one of the hard things about being at the bottom of the heap is that there’s “no one left to look down on,” suggesting that this shift in personal fortunes actually planted the seed of his racism. Maybe. It’s a complicated thing to unpack, with many factors in play, and Daniels’ effort to take a swing at this tough conversation is commendable, even if it ultimately falls a bit short of its aim.
“Flint” plays at the Purple Rose Theatre through March 10. For showtime and ticket information, visit www.purplerosetheatre.org.