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That Championship Season

 

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Del Ray Sun
That Championship Season: Another Winner for TACT

By Robbie Thornton

The last show was estrogen; this one is testosterone, David Siegel said before the curtain went up on That Championship Season.

The American Century Theater marketing director was not exaggerating. It was the kind of locker room jock talk that drove us to theater criticism in the first place. We were often uncomfortable because of the strong language, but without it, the piece would have been unbelievable.

That Championship Season is a tragedy, if not in the classical sense of a hero who has been bright low, then in the sense of the sadness of high school jocks who come to the realization that their lives had peaked when they were eighteen, and everything after has been slow degradation.

In this case, the decline is made worse through several revelations, among them one that tarnishes the gold trophy and everything it represents.

The year is 1972 and Vietnam is the Iraq of the day, when four members of a championship basketball team gather at the home of their coach (Elliot Moffitt). As the play proceeds, the coach, hero-mentor to his middle-aged boys, slips and then topples from his pedestal in a powerful and moving final speech.

In his customarily illuminating audience guide, Artistic Director Jack Marshall makes much of the nontraditional casting that has transformed this cast of white rednecks to an all-black cast. That spotlight on the racial composition of the cast is unfortunate in that these actors carry it off with such aplomb and credibility that it is easy for the audience to believe it was meant to be so. In fact, their being black makes it much easier to accept racial epithets that would otherwise likely have provoked more squirming that the use of what those of us who have reached a certain level of sophistication call the f-word.

Despite some minor weaknessesabout which we will have only a few wordsthis is a strong production. The cast works together like fine clockwork, although Tom (Joseph Mills III) won us over from almost his first words. A deep clear voice and laconic style riveted attention on the man who became the groups token alcoholic. His timing is impeccable and he wears his cynicism like a badge of honor. Despite, or maybe through, his cynicism and his alcoholic haze, Tom is usually the voice of reason.

Probably the weakest link is Phil (Omar A. Bah) who is less than convincing as a hard-nosed businessman. Although he has some bright moments, his distasteful character, both pragmatic and lecherous, fits him like a sharpeis skin.

Michael Switalskis set is 1970s lake cottage, which seems right enough, (The television and portable stereo cold have been taken from our own home at the time.) the only off notes being a slapdash paint job that simply did not work and some wall accents that didnt make sense to us. The flat behind the stairs also seemed to have been attached with masking tape, an unnecessary distraction from an otherwise convincing set.

James (Ron Lincoln) is earnest and decent, but as the play unfolds, we realize that he suffers the same doubts, the same sense of nagging mediocrity that plagues all of his teammates.

Finally, almost, George Sikes (Morgan James Hall) is the weak mayor, full of bombast and arrogance. He seems to be the only one who doesnt grasp that no one takes him seriously.

From early in the show, mysterious allusions to the absent Martin, raise questions about why he consistently shuns the annual gathering. The only tem member never to come, references to his absence become increasingly ominous. Was he killed in Vietnam or is there even a darker reason that he chooses to avoid the coach who has sacrificed marriage for the sake of his boys?

At bottom, it is worse for the team than either of the above scenarios. Martins absence looms over the room because it makes more pronounced their avoidance of a devastating truth, not a concept with which anyone on this championship team is on familiar terms. As the secret to us if not the characters --is revealed the play becomes a Full-Monty version of Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Maybe Toms line captures the theme of the play or at least the relationships among these men: If I had some wits, some guts and some anger, Id tear your head off

Despite the somber overtones and the turmoil that is never far below the surface, That Championship Season is accented with humor and realism; it is unpleasantly honest as pretenses are stripped away and nothing remains but the ugly naked truth of middle-aged men who know each others secrets.

As the characters speak, we are aware of how easy it is to blame everyone else for our own failings, even as the awesome coach towers over the lesser mortals unabashed by his own failings and commanding blind respect from his boys, even when it becomes clear that he doesnt deserve it.

That Championship Season is a sobering play, entertaining and thought-provoking for those who dont shy away from the kind of truth that makes people of conscience wince. We know these men, and in many ugly ways they recall Pogos famous words: We have met the enemy and he is us.

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For curiosity value, we note that Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Jason Miller is best remembered for portraying Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist. The late Mr. Miller and his wife, Linda Gleason, daughter of legendary comedic actor Jackie Gleason, were the parents of Jason Patric.

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