Swain dunks into sweet ‘Donuts’ role

Howard Swain has played an astonishing range of roles. He’s been Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Caliban in “The Tempest.” He was a giant amphibian in Edward Albee’s “Seascape.”

Now Swain is playing Arthur, a slightly glazed doughnut shop owner in Tracy Letts’ “Superior Donuts,” which is making its regional premiere in a new TheatreWorks production in Mountain View.

“Superior Donuts” is the latest work by Letts, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for the hit play “August: Osage County.” 

Swain calls the new work “remarkable.”  “I love it,” he says of “Donuts.”  “It’s a comedy, but it has that Tracy Letts darkness to it.”

“Donuts” tells the story of Arthur, a former 1960s radical who runs the doughnut shop his immigrant father opened 60 years before in Chicago’s Uptown district. Letts, a Chicago resident, has called the play his “love letter” to the city.

Arthur is struggling: the store’s in disrepair, the neighborhood is beset by violence, and his own past is rising up to confront him.

“He left the U.S. in 1968 to evade the draft, and spent 15 years running away,” says Swain. “Now he’s back, but he’s still kind of stuck.  He’s as dusty and dirty and forgotten as his doughnut shop.”

When Franco, a young African-American man with big dreams, comes to work in the shop, both men face the possibility of change. 

Leslie Martinson is directing a cast that also includes Bay Area favorites Lance Gardner, Julia Brothers, Joan Mankin, Gabriel Marin and Soren Oliver. 

Swain, who lives in Berkeley with his wife, actress Nancy Carlin, and their two children, was born in Philadelphia but came to the Bay Area in 1976.  He got his first role at The City’s own Magic Theatre, in a play called “Shakespeare the Sadist.”

It was an exciting time for a young actor.  “The company’s posters didn’t even have titles – they would just say ‘A new play by Sam Shepard,’” says Swain.  “They were all being written right then.”

Since then, Swain has gone on to perform throughout the Bay Area and beyond, with roles at American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, San Jose Repertory Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 

One of his all-time favorite roles was Ansel in “Killer Joe” at Marin Theatre Company – an early work that established Letts as an important American playwright, and the one that made Swain a fan.

“Letts is such an amazing writer,” says Swain.  “His plays are savagely funny, but they have a great deal of heart.  ‘Donuts’ is the same.  It’s great to have a part like this, one you can really get lost in.”

IF YOU GO

Superior Donuts

Presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 31
Tickets: $19 to $67
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org

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