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Chicago by John Olson

The Sweetest Swing in Baseball
Eclipse Theatre Company

Also see John's review of autobahn

The Sweetest Swing in Baseball
Kevin Scott and Janelle Snow
Though she is a native of Alabama, the Chicago theatre community claims playwright Rebecca Gilman as one of their own. Three of her plays received their world premieres at Chicago's Goodman before going to productions at prestigious venues that included the Manhattan Theatre Club, Lincoln Center Theatre and London's Royal Court Theatre. Her first play, The Glory of Living (recently revived by Chicago's Profiles Theater), premiered at the Circle Theatre in the suburb of Forest Park. Now, the Eclipse Theatre Company, which each season chooses a different playwright and focuses exclusively on that writer's work, has opened its "Rebecca Gilman Season." In the leadoff position is the Midwest premiere of her 2004 play The Sweetest Swing in Baseball.

The Sweetest Swing is not exactly about baseball. It's the story of Dana Fielding (Janelle Snow), a painter whose fear of failure after critical acclaim early in her career drives her to an unsuccessful suicide attempt. She quickly finds comfort in the hospital to which she's taken after the attempt, and with the help of a heavily sedated attempted murderer (Gary Simmers) and a cuddly gay recovering alcoholic (Kevin Scott), finds a way to stay there beyond the ten days for which her insurance company is willing to pay. Depression is not sufficient for an extended hospitalization, but a multiple personality disorder might be, so she pretends to imagine herself as the fallen hero of Major League Baseball, Darryl Strawberry. The doctors are fooled, and as Dana continues the charade she begins to identify with the player she came to know only through reading the hospital library's copy of his autobiography. Strawberry's description of the loss of his ability to play baseball for the sheer love of the game rather than to maintain a batting average strikes a chord and helps her remember what it felt like to paint purely for the love of it and not to fulfill the expectations of others. She regains her artistic voice, or more precisely finds Darryl Strawberry's artistic voice, as she can only paint while she's the baseball player.

The Sweetest Swing, in about 90 minutes of playing time, is a compact piece that, like a good short story or novella, takes not a word more than it needs to present its uncomplicated yet resonant theme. Ms. Gilman succeeds in taking the genre of "great artists struggling to create" into something more universal. While Dana Fielding may have found a soul mate in Darryl Strawberry, the piece is about achievement of any type, not just public endeavors likes sports or the arts. The attempted murderer Gary tells her that successful people are always resented by the "wannabees" who fail to realize their dreams because they fear failure.

Eclipse's production is lucky to have the winning Janelle Snow as Dana. On stage for nearly the entire play, she quickly earns our empathy with her carefully modulated performance. Her character's anxiety and depression are quietly and convincingly shown, and as Dana becomes stronger (and increasingly becomes "Darryl"), she turns into a charming tomboyish yet still feminine woman. The piece's understated tone as directed by Nathaniel Swift works less well for the supporting players, whose characters have been a bit underwritten by Gilman. The sociopath Gary is not fully believable and the alcoholic gay Michael has little backstory or detail to define him, while the other characters (an ex-boyfriend, two doctors and a gallery owner) have even less texture.

The cast and director are further hindered by the Victory Gardens' thrust mainstage, which is way too large for a piece that usually has only two or three players onstage at any time. Entrances and exits from the aisles take forever and interfere with the pacing. The dreamlike set designed by Mike Winkelman helps set the action in the territory of the mind, using abstract metallic benches with angular legs, and geometric lines painted on the stage.

Gilman has an ear for contemporary language and a style that is as entertaining and accessible as good night of NBC Thursday primetime TV, such as the moment when Dana, in one of her early attempts to speak as Darryl, makes a bad attempt at ghetto jive when talking to her African-American agent. The agent warns, "I hope you don't for a minute think you sound like a black person." While not much more demanding of its audience than a good sitcom, though, the piece is far more rewarding.

Eclipse will continue its exploration of Ms. Gilman's writing this summer with her most successful play, Spinning Into Butter (to be released as a feature film starring Sarah Jessica Parker later this year), and this fall with Boy Gets Girl. Chicago theatergoers who (like me) have not followed Gilman's career from the beginning, will now have the opportunity to catch up.

The Sweetest Swing in Baseball will be performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through Sunday, April 23rd, 2006 at the Victory Gardens Theatre, 2257 N. Lincoln, Chicago. Tickets are available through the Victory Gardens Box Office at 773-871-3000, online at www.eclipsetheatre.com, or through HotTix locations.

Photo: Betsy Lent

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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