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Chicago by John Olson

Bang the Drum Slowly
Raven Theatre

Also see John's review of In a Forest, Dark and Deep

Bang the Drum Slowly
Carthy Dixon, Antoine Pierre Whitfield, Kevin Duvall, Michael Stegall and Tim Walsh
Long before Eric Simonson began his campaign to bring sports fans into the theater with Lombardi and Magic/Bird, he adapted the 1956 Mark Harris novel "Bang the Drum Slowly" for the stage. Simonson directed its 1994 premiere at Boston's Huntington Theatre, but the novel had previously been dramatized for TV (in 1956, starring Paul Newman) and in a 1973 feature film version that was one of the first leading screen roles for Robert De Niro. The action occurs mostly in the locker room of a fictional major league baseball team, the New York "Mammoths" (undoubtedly an alias for the New York Giants, who moved to San Francisco the following year). It concerns the rather dim third-string catcher Bruce Pearson, who at the start of the play confides to his in-season roommate Henry Wiggen that he's been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and has just months to live. Wiggen—a star player and contract holdout—promises to keep Bruce's disease a secret from the rest of the club so that Bruce can play as much of the season as possible. Inexplicably to the other teammates, Wiggen becomes Bruce's protector—even to the point of making Bruce's employment a condition of Wiggen's contract.

The play seems to not have been produced very often since the Huntington premiere, at least not that I could find in a few Google searches. While the action fits neatly on stage—with most of it occurring naturally in a locker room—there's little tension or dramatic arc. It's not much of spoiler to reveal the rest of the plot—Bruce's ultimate fate has been revealed by the author in the play's first few minutes and the resolution will be hardly surprising to anyone who's ever seen a sports drama. As the season progresses, the team's players (an ethnically diverse and non-cohesive group of mostly self-centered young men) and their manager Dutch Schnell learn the truth. That knowledge causes them to be kinder to Bruce, and each other for that matter. With a renewed appreciation for each other, they go on to win the World Series, but only after Bruce has become too sick to play.

Beyond Wiggen and Pearson, the characters don't have enough time to develop beyond simple stereotypes. They're all stereotyped as deficient in one way or another, but mostly they're shown to be ignorant and intolerant as a result of the segregation still common in 1950s America. Their banter feels authentic, though, and the baseball terminology is sufficient to establish milieu without requiring a vast understanding of the game to appreciate the play. While the arc's flatness makes the play's 105 minutes of stage time feel longer, we can give Harris and Simonson credit for avoiding easy manipulation of our emotions. Director Michael Menendian and his cast create the characters and the locker room environment credibly. They don't come up with any particularly surprising takes on the characters, but Simonson's script doesn't give much leeway in which to do that.

The two leads are more complex than their teammates. Wiggen, though high salaried by 1956 standards, sells insurance to supplement his income and he's a slick enough businessman to be pretty good at it. He strikes a tough bargain with the club when negotiating his contract as well. As Wiggen, Michael Stegall has the right look for the character and manages well enough, but never fully establishes the sort of charisma Wiggen is supposed to have. As Pearson (De Niro's role in the film), Kevin Duvall fares a little better, capturing a sweet innocence for his Georgia country boy, but again, with nothing too unexpected in his interpretation. The crusty manager Dutch (and aren't fictional baseball managers all crusty?) is played nicely by Tim Walsh. Walsh is smart enough not to try to overplay a type that's become familiar in films from Bang the Drum Slowly (Vincent Gardenia earned an Oscar nomination for the role) through Moneyball, and even Damn Yankees for that matter.

Bang the Drum Slowly has its heart in the right place, and audiences willing to embrace a quiet meditation on the preciousness of life will find it a genuine and heartfelt piece. I wonder, though, if the 243-page novel wasn't just a bit thin for a two-hour play or feature film. The TV version—a live drama from the Golden Age of television—was just 60 minutes. Even so, baseball fans will particularly enjoy the chance to spend a few hours in the realistic locker room created by designers Amanda Rozmiarek, Andrei Onegin and Mary O'Dowd, and relish being back in a time when sports heroes seemed more like regular people than do the superstars of today. Athletes were more like mere mortals back in the '50s, and this reflection on the mortality of us all remains touching.

Bang the Drum Slowly will play the Raven Theatre's East Stage through June 30, 2012. For tickets, visit www.raventheatre.com or call 773-338-2177. The Raven Theatre is located at 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago.


Photo: Dean LaPrairie

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-- John Olson



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