Feb. 6, 2018
The lasting image punctuates the intense 75-minute play by actor Jeff Daniels, now being performed at The Purple Rose Theatre Co. in Chelsea. The one-act play is rife with humor, yet weighted by the misery of once-proud middle-class Americans who grapple with the loss of good-paying automotive jobs and the new reality that they are poor — so poor and abandoned that even the water out of the tap, the most basic amenity of first-world living, has gone bad.
But for Olivia, a wearied church secretary whose husband, Mitchell, now makes $8.40 an hour working part-time at Walmart with designs on becoming a floor supervisor, the glass of cloudy water is clearly half full. She unwittingly takes a gulp and walks out onto the porch with her baby, sweetly singing “Jesus Loves Me.”
After all they’ve been through, Olivia and Mitchell are still hanging on — at least at the outset of the city’s water crisis in Fall 2014, when Daniels sets the play. They’re holding onto hope. Not so much for their neighbors, Eddie and Karen, whose lives already have unraveled in the years since Eddie lost his job as a line foreman at General Motors.
“Flint” puts the two couples in contrast on a simple kitchen set with a sink and faucet in the middle, and black-and-white images of the city’s heavenly glory days of yesteryear looming above the stage.
“You ever been down so low there’s no hope?” a drunken Eddie asks.
“There’s always hope,” responds Mitchell, his Walmart vest hanging over the kitchen chair.
Best known for his acting in Hollywood hits like “Dumb & Dumber” and his Emmy Award-winning performance as the lead character in HBO’s “The Newsroom,” singer/songwriter/playwright Daniels gives the characters in “Flint” enough jokes to keep the audience laughing much of the way. “Maybe I could get a job as a pharmacist,” muses unemployed Eddie, taking a swig of beer. “I’ve done a lot of drugs.”
But the couples’ plight is far from funny. When Mitchell first pours a glass of water from the tap, the color, like “something out of an old man’s bladder,” would be comical if it wasn’t so sad. When Olivia drops a “General Motors is Satan” punch line, it’s met with silence by the audience.
Daniels wants to bring the audience into the room with his characters, to feel what they’re feeling, and under Guy Sanville’s direction “Flint” succeeds. After loosening things up with a steady run of one-liners through the first half of the play, the latter half roils the audience by mixing one couple’s inspiring hope with the other’s utterly crushing collapse.
“I cry every day and when I’m all cried out all I’m left with is hate,” says a despairing Karen. “I want to remember how to love.”
Purple Rose veteran David Bendena thrives as Eddie, who comes from a family of autoworkers as if it were a royal lineage: “Once you’re in, you’re in for life,” he recalls telling Mitchell. Eddie’s pride prevents him from getting any old job like Mitchell has done, even with his home on the brink of foreclosure and his marriage disintegrating. “Who’s going to give me my life back?” he asks, admitting to driving past the old auto plant just to remember how it felt back “when we had it made.”
Rhiannon Ragland plays Karen, who also longs for the past but can’t even get her former gig as a stripper because she’s too old. (Karen was played by understudy Kristin Shields in the Jan. 31 performance reviewed.)
Lynch Travis is back on the Purple Rose stage playing Mitchell, who comes from more humble origins than Eddie. He’s named after his father, who made his living selling one bag of peanuts at a time as a Tiger Stadium vendor. When GM left town, Mitchell went through a rough patch and hit bottom before deciding to push forward one Walmart sporting goods sale at a time while he imagines making it big with his ideas for bumper stickers. “I got one thing that I’m good at,” Mitchell says. “I’m a provider.”
Daniels infuses the script with an ever-present racial dynamic — one couple is white and one is black — and suggests the water crisis was allowed to happen because Flint is predominantly black. There’s also a religious undercurrent carried largely by Olivia, played by Casaundra Freeman in her Purple Rose debut. Olivia’s resolve is buoyed by a recitation of Psalm 23 with Mitchell, and the couple later gives Karen their “Jesus box” of hope.
“Believing in the Lord is believing in each other,” Olivia says. “It is about not giving up.”
“Flint” plays at The Purple Rose through March 10. Get tickets here. The play contains adult language and content.