American writer and philosopher, Elbert Hubbard, once said, “Your neighbour is the man who needs you.” But how many people today would agree with the concept?

Much of the Australian population today doesn’t embrace the concept of the neighbourhood in the same way as local communities of past generations. Those were times when neighbourhood relationships often more closely resembled family relationships. Neighbours looked out for each other, knew each other’s business and spent considerable amounts of time together. People cared about their neighbours, and their neighbours cared about them.

Today, it seems more common for people to ascribe to Robert Frost’s adage in Mending Wall – ‘Good fences make good neighbours’. They’d say it’s best to get on with their own business and leave others to do theirs. They may live next door to one neighbour for 5, 10, 20 years, and know as much about them the day they became neighbours as the day that they left the area.

Do we need to change the way we think about our neighbours today, taking the lead from generations past? Do we need to reacquaint ourselves with the notion of community?

It’s these kinds of questions that are provoked by American playwright, Lisa D’Amour, in her Obie Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-nominated play, Detroit. Despite the title of the play, D’Amour has said the setting is really any midsized American city. It tells the story of Ben (Ed Wightman), who has recently lost his job as a bank loan officer and is intent on creating a website to provide financial advice. He and his wife, Mary (Lisa Chappell), host a backyard barbecue for new neighbours, Sharon (Claire Lovering) and Kenny (James O’Connell).

As the afternoon goes on, Ben and Mary learn about the struggles that have confronted Sharon and Kenny in recent times. So too do Sharon and Kenny begin to get an insight into Ben and Mary’s increasingly difficult times. An odd friendship forms between the couples and, as events transpire, Ben and Mary are ultimately forced to examine their lives and contemplate how they can truly affect positive change for themselves.

Director, Ross McGregor, has assembled a remarkable cast for the Australian premiere season of Detroit. Lovering is outstanding as Sharon who, along with Kenny, has recently emerged from a rehabilitation program for substance abuse to pursue a better life for herself and her partner. Her Sharon is hugely likeable but incredibly fragile, giving the audience a sense she’s one simple act away from destroying the couple’s chance at a new start.

And that’s certainly true of Kenny too. O’Connell’s portrayal is of a fundamentally good guy with good intentions, but who is still far from having left the demons of his past entirely behind. His grasp on his path is tenuous, but O’Connell’s delivery of a sympathetic character leaves you sitting in your seat and urging him to stay the course.

Chappell and Wightman are also incredibly successful in their delivery of layered characters, who face deep troubles of their own. Chappell is unwaveringly excellent as Mary, but is particularly impressive in giving us an alcohol-fuelled outburst early in the show. Meanwhile, Wightman is never anything but totally believable as a man struggling to find motivation for his next move. While we feel Mary’s frustration at Ben’s lack of activity, we sympathise with his fear of failure as he takes tentative steps into unchartered territory.

Detroit (cast photo)

The cast of Darlinghurst Theatre’s Detroit (Photo courtesy of Helen White)

Of course, what’s important to stress is that Detroit is a comedy, and all four principal actors are tremendously funny throughout the piece. Additionally, Paige Walker deserves special praise for the work that she’s done with the cast as dialect coach. Not one of the four fell out of their mid-western accents for a moment, which is obviously testament to Walker’s work here.

The final piece of the puzzle is veteran stage actor, Ronald Falk, who only comes into the play during its final sequences. To say too much more about his character would perhaps give too much away, but Falk’s contribution to the piece is pivotal and serves to prompt audience members to leave thinking about the central themes raised by the work.

Detroit is an intelligent piece of theatre with powerful and relevant messages that will resound with audiences far beyond the boundaries of the motor city. It’s an achievement for D’Amour as playwright and, almost equally, an achievement for McGregor and his sensational cast, who’ve succeeded in working well to get the very best out of the text. Be sure to pay a visit to the Eternity Playhouse before mid-August!

Detroit is now playing at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst until August 16.

Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here.