“Flint” by Jeff Daniels, the actor and playwright, depicts a situation where the American dream has evaporated. The General Motors plant has closed down and the drinking water is polluted in Flint, Michigan, when on a Friday evening in September 2014, two couples, one African-American and the other white, get together to socialize, drink and talk. The husbands have lost their factory jobs and are facing a financial crisis; both marriages are also at a critical stage, and despite the jovial note on which they greet one another and introduce themselves to the audience, a storm cloud hovers in the air.
“Flint” is receiving its East Coast debut at Shadowland Stages under the able direction of James Glossman. It is an emotion-packed production with flashes of humor but also tears and tension in a tragic situation. In addition to the economic collapse and the water problem, racial issues loom in the background of the couples’ apparently friendly relationship. With all the handshakes and hugs, an actual fight waits in the wings of this one-act drama. A fatal inevitability is at work here that involves the audience and should keep them involved until the bitter end.
Mitchell (Brandon Rubin) was hired at the auto factory by Eddie (Brendan Burke, who is Shadowland's artistic director), the line foreman whose father and relatives were part of the Flint former success story. The color barrier has begun to break down with Mitchell’s hiring and Eddie takes pride in his lack of prejudice. In fact, he even helps the black couple to buy a house nearby in his neighborhood. After the plant closes, Mitchell finds a part-time job at Walmart in the sports department and he hopes soon to be hired as a full-time floor supervisor. Eddie, on the other hand, remains unemployed, refusing to lower himself by working at menial jobs and unfortunately depending more and more on alcohol. “When I was working at GM,” he says, “I was everything; now I am nothing.” He feels he has hit bottom. And he has, but he has farther to go.
Both actors are excellent in their roles. Rubin is large, smiling and affable in his physical energy. Near the end he has an emotional outburst that is an acting challenge. Burke plays Eddie as wrapped up in himself, shifting between warmth and anger, quick to leave the kitchen where all the action is taking place to drive off with screeching tires. Finally he is unable to contain his pent-up wrath and attacks Mitchell.
Mitchell’s wife Olivia (Jammie Patton) serves at her local church as a secretary and driver, but makes little money. She responds lovingly to her husband’s affection, but she expresses disappointment that he has not found better work. She is pregnant and already has a baby whom she cuddles in her arms from time to time. Eddie ‘s wife Karen (LeeAnne Hutchison) is a stay-at-home mom who is discontented from her husband’s failure as a family “provider,” a position that Mitchell prides himself on maintaining. Karen is a former stripper but fails in her attempt to be rehired because she is “too old.” She and Eddie have volatile arguments and she is ready to leave him when she finds they are about to lose their home in foreclosure. Patton and Hutchinson provide clear-cut contrasts as the two wives who have opposite mates and difficulties to deal with.
“The play takes place six weeks before the State of Michigan announced a problem with the city’s water,” a program note informs us. The water from the kitchen faucet is dirty yellow, and Olivia drinks it suspecting pollution. Mitchell remarks that the water has been introduced because of the rising black population. Claiming to save money, the city has drawn it from the Flint River. In the play, the water is a symbol of government cynicism and racism.
The set by Justin and Christopher Swaden occupies the full stage with almost a whole house, complete with kitchen, living room and yard. The costumes by Bettina Bierly capture the contrasts between the couples and sexes with Karen’s being the most colorful. Daisy Long’s lighting design highlights several flashback scenes.
Saturday’s matinee preview performance received a standing ovation. Wet handkerchiefs could be seen among the audience.