This week, a theater company from New York City opens “Detroit” in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated play set in an outer-ring suburb of a nameless city will be performed on the grounds of a private estate in an outer-ring suburb of Philadelphia.
“Detroit” is about two couples — neighbors — trying awkwardly to bond over backyard barbecues. It unfolds in an actual backyard of Sycamore Hill, a 12-acre estate in East Coventry Township, just outside Pottstown, about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia.
There, the grill is actually hot, the wind actually blows the plastic tablecloth off the patio furniture, and — during rehearsal — a rider lawnmower was working off stage.
“Suspension of disbelief is not needed for that part of the show,” said director Seth Reich. “At moments when the audience has to give into suspension of disbelief, it really pops. It hits you in a very moving way.”
Reich is the artistic director of Theater With A View, the New York-based company that has, for the last three years, produced theater exclusively at Sycamore Hill. The reasons are, in part, practical — the estate is owned by Dr. Veronica Covalesky, the older sister of the company’s executive director, Nina Covalesky (who also stars in the play as Mary).
A few years ago Nina was gushing to her sister about having seen an intimate production of “Uncle Vanya” on an estate in Vermont. “I was inspired,” she said. “And I was also jealous of the performers for having that experience.”
“We’ve done a number of other things on our property, mostly revolving around very large family celebrations — wedding, graduations,” said Veronica Covalesky, who lives in Pottstown and works as a cardiologist in Philadelphia. “It was a small leap to the theater group. We thought we would try it. We had no idea if it will work out at all.”
“Detroit,” the play, has nothing to do with Detroit, the city. The play is set in an unnamed suburb outside an unnamed city. While Detroit is never mentioned in the script, it exists as an idea. Detroit is a state of mind.
The producers chose “Detroit” because it is about Pottstown. The characters are from different socioeconomic backgrounds, all disillusioned by the mythical American Dream of prosperity and stability. That theme finds traction in Pottstown, where nearly every block inside the city limits has (at least) one house that is in foreclosure, or has been in the last eight years.
“Any quick drive around Pottstown, it’s very clear to see,” said Nina Covalesky. “Most of the people in this community are not the kind of people who commute to Philadelphia.”
Nevertheless, the town appears to be hungry for theater. In three consecutive summers, the number of performances by Theater with a View has tripled to accommodate demand.
“A lot of audience members came up to me and thanked me for bringing theater to them,” said Reich. “As a New Yorker, that was strange for me, but it was beautiful.”