Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
So, you would think that Mat Smart's play, Tinker to Evers to Chance, is about baseball, or maybe about a tricky operation that succeeds by dint of a slick team, a la the Ocean's Eleven gang. It turns out to be about neither, though there are references aplenty to the ballplayers, and Johnny Evers actually makes a couple of appearances in the course of the two-act drama being staged by Artistry in their Black Box Theater. While the plot kicks off at the time of a pivotal end-of-season Cubs game and the ferocity of sports fans, Cubs fans above all, is evident, that is just the backdrop for what is on its mind. In truth, it is about the walls people build after they have suffered the loss of a loved one that keep them from opening their hearts to new love, or happiness in any form. The play has good moments and well-crafted dialogue but takes a circuitous route to cross home plate, far less direct than its namesake baseball players' performance on the field.
Lauren (Meredith Casey) has just flown in from New York, where she holds an unspecified but clearly demanding job that keeps her from making it back home to Chicago very often. She storms into her mother Nessa's apartment, talking a mile a minute, hyped up like she had consumed coffee non-stop on her flight. Her mother is not there, which is odd. RJ (JoeNathan Thomas), the personal care attendant who has assisted Nessa since she suffered a stroke two years before, is putting away groceries he just purchased for her, but he does not know where Nessa is either. Lauren clearly has suspicions about RJ, but he holds his ground.
The occasion for Lauren's visit is a Cubs playoff game that everyone expects will clinch the pennant after a drought of 100 years. Nessa is a rabid Cubs fan, a passion she has instilled in Lauren. Nessa's prize possession is a jersey given to her grandmother by Johnny Evers and which she, Nessa, had Evers sign shortly before his death in 1947. Lauren decides that, as her flight was late arriving, her mom must have gone ahead to the game without her, lest she miss the all-important first pitch.
When Lauren cannot find Nessa at Wriggly Field, she comes back in a panic, and draws RJ into a desperate search for her mother. In bits and pieces, we learn about Nessa's relationships with both Lauren and with RJ. Lauren discovers that Nessa has written a play that conflates their family history with Johnny Evers' story. In flashbacks we see how Nessa's grandmother acquired Johnny Evers' jersey, how Nessa, at age 17, got Evers to sign it, and the relationship between Evers, who in his later years also was a stroke victim, and his nurse, with obvious parallels to the Nexuses relationship. Both Lauren and RJ have some sorting out to do about what they want and what prevents them from having it.
Tinkers to Evers to Chance has some good ideas, and in Lauren and RJ, playwright Smart offers two interesting and complex characters. However, the journey he takes the audience on, shuttling back and forth in flashbacks, is confusing, and the many references to baseball games, players and strategies may add color to the serious drama at hand for fans of the game, but for others merely clutter the proceedings. Even the references to titular heroes Tinkers, Evers and Chance, and a heartfelt recitation of Adams' eight-line poem seems to have scant connection to the narrative.
Having the two actors, Casey and Thomas, play other characters in the flashbacks can be confusing, especially as the female actor, Casey, plays the male role of Johnny Evers in the flashbacks and the male actor, Thomas, takes on three different female roles. There may be logic here, in that the caregiver RJ, played by Thomas, is a nurturing character, which puts him in alignment with the gentler women, while Lauren, Casey's character, comes across, at least through the first act, as aggressive, even somewhat belligerent, which matches the play's depiction of Johnny Evers. If this is the intent of the cross-gender casting of those characters, I fear it was lost on many in the Artistry audience.
In spite of the confusion in the play when it veers back and forth in time or place, and shifts actors into different roles, director Brian Balcom keeps the production well-paced, and stages the transitions smoothly, drawing out distinctive characterizations for each of the roles played by the two actors. For their parts, both Thomas and Casey give strong performances. Thomas (All the Way at History Theater) is wonderful as RJ, a man late in his life who has been through the mill a few times and gained wisdom in the process, even if that wisdom puts him at odds with his own happiness. We see his simmering efforts to be patient with Lauren, even as he is not one to suffer fools. Playing thee different women, he imbeds in each a gentle nature, but with a strong will that does not back down. His modulations in those roles is impressive.
Casey (The Wolves at Jungle Theater) is easy to dislike as Lauren at the start, as a motor-mouth, somewhat vulgar, self-absorbed adult daughter unaware of her failing mother's true needs, becoming more settled and self-aware in the course of the play, registering a change of heart that is believable and satisfying. In her depiction of Evers, Casey conveys a self-loathing element that seemed to haunt the man throughout his life, and in the later scenes, the restrictions in speech and movement his stroke had cast upon the right side of his body.
The setting is a comfortable looking apartment, given different wall decorations to distinguish between Nessa's home and RJ's, with other locales played further up stage. Costume, lights and sound all serve the production well, though perhaps more distinction in the costuming could have helped to identify the time periods of the flashback scenes.
Minnesota Opera's recent premiere of The Fix (based on the Cubs' rival on the south side, the Chicago White Sox), demonstrated the rich window into American lives and values that a baseball theme can offer, but Tinker to Evers to Chance does not draw very much from that pool, nor does it tap the goodwill that an audience is likely to bring to a production that purports to be about the great national pastime. Its focus on the mother-daughter and patient-caregiver relationships is certainly meaningful, but too much effort goes into creating the baseball backdrop without attaching meaning to that as well.
I enjoyed Tinker to Evers to Chance for the fine performances and the challenge of figuring out the puzzle of the intertwined plots taking place in the present and in the past. In the end, there are no big surprises, just the accommodations people make to play the cards dealt to them. I would have to say this play makes it to first base, but I'm not so sure the runner ever scores.
Tinker to Evers to Chance, through May 26, 2019, at Artistry, Black Box Theater, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $46.00 to $43.00; Seniors, age 62 and up: $41 - $38.00, Next Generation Tickets (30 and under): $15.00. For tickets and information, call 952-563-8375 or visit artistrymn.org.
Writer: Mat Smart; Director: Brian Balcom; Scenic and Props Design: Katie Phillips; Costume Design: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Stage Manager: Paran Kashani.
Cast: Meredith Casey (Lauren), JoeNathan Thomas (RJ).