Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

X's and O's (A Football Love Story)
Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Also see Jeanie's review of Eurydice and Richard's reviews of Blithe Spirit and The Cable Car Nymphomaniac

Dwight Hicks, Eddie Ray Jackson and Marilee Talkington
"Football isn't a contact sport. It's a collision sport." Though the quote is usually attributed to legendary Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty, in X's and O's (A Football Love Story), now playing in a world premiere production on the Thrust Stage at Berkeley Rep, credit goes to the even more legendary (nay, iconic) Vince Lombardi. No matter who said it, it's never been more true. The average NFL lineman in the 1960s tipped the scales at 255 pounds. Now that average is over 300. T.J. Barnes of the New York Jets is listed at 364. Despite this, he runs a very respectable 5.3 second 40-yard dash. What turns "contact" into "collision," then, is simple physics. F=ma: Force is equal to mass times acceleration. Get guys that big and that fast (and that tough and that mean and that inured to pain) and pay them millions of dollars to run into each other—and you're going to release some serious force in the form of brain-rattling hits.

But the question at the heart of X's and O's is "How hard a hit is it going to take for Americans to realize their favorite sport is hastening the demise of everyone who plays it?"

Playwright and football fan KJ Sanchez examines this question through the words of players, their families, and fans, whom she interviewed at length in developing the play. To her credit (and that of collaborator Jenny Mercein), she eschews making a judgment on whether on not anyone should play football, and instead gives us a clear-eyed, if sometimes hard-nosed, look at the realities of the game: its violent nature, its loyal (sometimes rabidly so) fans, its corporate backers, and its cultural ubiquity and economic clout.

That's not to say there isn't an agenda at work here. Sanchez clearly wants her audience to know the facts about the effects of the repeated head trauma players receive throughout their careers, and the long-term brain damage it causes. But she's savvy enough to face another truth—fans don't really care all that much. They love the hard hits, even more than some racing fans secretly love to see a crash. After all, hitting is part of the game in football, while crashing is only incidental (and accidental) in racing. So, before we get to know the physician who explains in clinical detail what happens when the brain (despite being encased in a modern, well-designed helmet) is concussed against the skull wall, we are introduced to players who share how they fell in love with the game, and fans who—even if they happen to be fans of a team that sucks—revel in the community of "60,000 people sucking together." Sanchez helps us understand why football is so important to so many people that it's highly unlikely it's going anywhere anytime soon, despite the clear danger it poses to those who play it.

Six actors play a multitude of roles, and all give sincere, empathic performances that honor the real people who consented to speak openly about their experiences—even when those experiences are tragic or painful or crippling. But special note is due both ex-49er Dwight Hicks, whose portrayal of a fellow former player is hysterically funny and delightfully honest, and Eddie Ray Jackson, who steals the show with a vibrantly energetic turn as an 11th-grade high school player. His joy and buoyancy would put Tigger to shame, and induced the only spontaneous break for applause of the evening at the performance I attended.

Though the underlying theme is gravely serious, Sanchez gives us plenty of times to laugh, too. (The biggest laughter of the night comes with the delivery of a single word—"Raiiiiiiders!!!"—following a brilliant setup.) The staging—mostly projection surfaces and screens, along with two banks of stadium-style lights—provides a bold, flexible backdrop against which a variety of scenes play. The projection screens regularly fill with historical images and game footage that provides context, as well as occasionally reminding us just how hard those big boys can hit.

How big a hit Berkeley Rep has on its hands remains to be seen. But X's and O's certainly deserves to be seen. Whether you're a rabid fan or someone who watches the Super Bowl just for the commercials, there's enough pathos, humor, and humanity here to engage and delight you for all 80 intermission-less minutes.

X's and O's (A Football Love Story) runs through March 1, 2015, on the Thrust Stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesdays (no show 1/26) and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. (with added 2:00 p.m. shows 1/29 and 2/26), Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. (no matinees 1/17 and 1/31), and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. (no matinee 1/18). Tickets from $29-$79, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups. Tickets are available online at, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949 or during box office hours: Tuesday-Sunday 12:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Patrick Thomas

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