Bang the Drum Slowly
Also see John's review of In a Forest, Dark and Deep
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 stagewith most of it occurring naturally in a locker roomthere's little tension or dramatic arc. It's not much of spoiler to reveal the rest of the plotBruce'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 versiona live drama from the Golden Age of televisionwas 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.