That Championship Season
Opposing him, inadvertently, are his former student players, who are well on the road to self-destruction, eyes firmly fixed on the rear-view mirror of life and wondering why they run into so many accidents here in the present. R. Travis Estes is the town mayor (in Lackawanna Valley, Pennsylvania) who seems to look more and more hopeless with each new entrance, and each new complication to his plans for reelection. Cameron Ulrich is flawless as the flashy businessman, and B. Weller is unsettling as the self-deceived high school principal. Charlie Barron is his kid brother, the one who refuses to buy any of their stories, though he's also the one who most looks like he ought to be in an intensive care unit, for all his character's drinking. And he gets most of the night's funniest lines, as the most horrifically real of these gone-to-seed jocks. But the stoic Mr. Ulrich is amazing too, in his own sleek and occasionally dangerous presence.
Playwright Miller updated the script in 1999, and it redounds to everyone's benefitafter all, how many audience members in 2010 are really going to remember the right-wing, Roosevelt-era radio personality Father Coughlin? And a glancing (favorable!) reference to the "red-baiting" Joe McCarthy flies by so fast that it barely registers. But it's all fodder for Mr. Beyer's aging and ailing coach, for another rousing speech and another moment of shocked dismay at the failings of his once great players. And later, in his final moment, you might even see a shimmering flash of pure insanity wavering across his face: ever heroic, even in a small town taken over by dress factories and surrounded by empty mines. He presents the kind of madness that thrives only on high and rocky outcroppings, real or imagined, where the air is thinnest.
And, though the play's other characters will never find their rapture on high, some of the actors on stage do manage to find it by going deep. Mr. Barron's dry analysis of the casual antisemitism of their backwoods town, as being merely stagey and absurd, is shocking and hilarious; and Mr. Ulrich's equally unique way of handling the problems of being the richest man in town (with a glum and thuggish elegance) reveals a startling abyss, by contrast. Both men stand just at the edge of the memory play: one dying of drink; the other, dismayed by his friends' envy of his power.
That leaves Mr. Estes (as the mayor) and Mr. Weller (as his campaign manager/high school principal), and both of their characters have seemingly made careers of their on-court victory, now far behind them. Mr. Estes is like an open wound, and my companion at the show even speculated that the actor might be applying darker and darker rings under his eyes between scenes, owing to Mr. Estes' increasingly bedraggled and pathetic appearance. But I don't think it's that easy to apply make-up back stage in the dark, so I have to assume it was more likely the right combination of a very fine actor and very good (bad) lighting. When he learns he's been cuckolded by one of his former teammates, it is (rightly) the horror and outrage of a teenager we see, rather than a grown man's.
The always professional and usually very funny Mr. Weller, on the other hand, almost seems miscast as the similarly pathetic school principal, and chief of the mayor's re-election campaign. On top of that (unlikely as it sounds), director Knoll almost seems to have ignored Mr. Weller's plight, in his search for a characterization, without helping him find the tragedy of misguided pride that seems to be the real source of drama for his character. Of course, that may all be in my own imagination, as Mr. Weller himself is so humble and self-effacing off-stage, that perhaps I simply can't perceive the full measure of foolish vanity (and concomitant shame) he may be trying to "put across the footlights," when dealing with a grievous loss of face.
Maybe he'll grow into it, or maybe I'm just half-blind.
Through August 22, 2010, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sundays at 7, inside the south end of Chesterfield Mall, across the escalators from Friday's, on the second level, near the Sears. For more information visit them on-line at www.dramaticlicenseproductions.com.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association