In the Forest of Detroit, by area playwright Ellen Anderson, is a quirky mystery permeated with magical realism. This production is the latest offering from Dramatic Women, a company that promotes the work of female artists. Set in the downfallen neighborhood of Detroit, Anderson’s play is the story of two eccentric museum docents, Anne (Leslie Gangl Howe) and Carol (Lisa Gates), who find themselves accidentally at-large when a well-known art piece, an African Nkisi statue, goes missing and ends up in the trunk of Anne’s car. Anderson’s play, which she calls a love letter to Detroit, features many tender moments that express great fondness for the downtrodden city; it has a footing in the stark realities of a city on the verge of collapse — and a finger on the pulse of hope for a brighter future.
This premiere had a number of charming moments, but as with many fledgling plays, certain aspects can be honed and shaped to better serve the overall plot and themes. In the Forest of Detroit utilizes several distinct storytelling techniques, including live music by musical/comedy duo Mommy Tonk, and the use of two newscasters (Tonea Lolin and Erica Flor) to bring Detroit alive by keeping the audience up-to-date on current events (including coverage of the search for the Nkisi statue). Lolin and Flor’s performances are appropriately campy, and their presence maintains a vital link between the living room where Anne harbors the Nkisi and the implied world of Detroit that isn’t seen directly onstage. It’s an important micro-macro relationship that’s well illustrated.
The variety of narrative elements offers the potential for complex, layered storytelling, but the effect was disjointed. Mommy Tonk’s music-based commentary was clever but disconnected from the flow of the play; musical interludes paused narrative action rather than punctuating it. The play also suffered from scattered focus: Besides the Nkisi mystery and overarching commentary on Detroit, there were several side-stories that seemed either convenient or separate from the main plot. Some cases, such as the major revelations about Anne and Carol’s respective daughters (Terry Li and Caroline DeLoreto), created concerning plot non sequiturs that were never addressed thoroughly, even though the emotional repercussions of the twist were vast enough for their own dramatic production.
Despite the bugs of a new narrative engine, Ellen Anderson and Dramatic Women take emphatic ownership of their important role in the theatrical community, and it’s encouraging to see a truly homegrown play. What In the Forest of Detroit lacked in subtlety it made up for in enthusiasm. Anderson’s work upholds the dignity of Detroit — the production expresses deep reverence for a city representative of a significant era in our collective cultural history