American Century Theater Bang the Drum SlowlyBy Bob Ashby • Jan 14th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
American Century Theater: (Info) (Web)
Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, VA
Through February 1st
2:15, with intermission
$35-$40/$32-$37 Seniors, Students, Military (Plus Fees)
Reviewed January 11th, 2013
The great virtue of Bang the Drum Slowly, adapted from Mark Harris’ 1956 novel by Harris and Eric Simonson, is that it presents a story of an athlete’s fatal illness in a way that does not turn into a four-hanky sports weepy, of the “Brian’s Song” variety. The story is told primarily through the relationship of its two major characters, Henry “Author” Wiggen (Evan Crump), a young pitcher for the fictional New York Mammoths, and Bruce Pearson (Richie Montgomery), a backup catcher suffering from Hodgkin Lymphoma.
Throughout his undistinguished career, Bruce has also suffered being the target of locker room hazing, disguised as jokes, focused on his being thought of as dumb. As portrayed by Montgomery, Bruce is a sweet-natured, smiling man who does not take visible offense at the “ragging” he endures and who accepts almost unquestioningly what life throws at him. Montgomery ably portrays the dual nature of Bruce’s sweetness: partly the intrinsic character of a naïve country boy (a “rube” in old-time baseball lingo) and partly the defense of a vulnerable man against daily nastiness he cannot understand. For the most part, he deals with his illness with the same equanimity with which he deals with other blows that life has dealt him. Only to Henry, his best — and for a long time, only — friend on the team does he show the sadness and fear of knowing he will soon die, and then only on occasion, quickly resuming his typical good cheer.
Henry, by contrast, is a baseball golden boy. A star pitcher who has published a book about his baseball experiences — hence his nickname “Author,” which Bruce misconstrues as “Arthur” — he enjoys talent, fame, a decent salary (for the 1950s), and a happy home life, with his wife (Mary Beth Luckenbaugh) expecting their first child. But he is not an entitled star of the A-Rod sort, who would not know empathy if he tripped over it. As portrayed by Crump, Henry — who also is the play’s first-person narrator — is articulate, insightful, and compassionate. The portrayal is not overly complex — we’re talking about a 23-year old ballplayer here — but there is clarity in the performance. Knowing that the team would cut Bruce if management learned of his illness, Henry negotiates a contract clause tying Bruce’s employment to his own. He builds up Bruce, telling him he is brighter than he thinks and giving him hints about how to play the game smarter.
And it works. Bruce picks up on an opposing pitcher’s “tell” to figure out when to steal a base, something his manager and teammates have missed. He figures out another pitcher’s pattern to guess successfully about what pitch to expect on a two-strike count. He gets more playing time and makes some key contributions to the team. One of the more poignant points of the play is that, with Henry’s encouragement, Bruce begins to figure out the game — and, by extension, life — only as he is dying.
Crusty but good-hearted Mammoths’ manager “Dutch” Snell (Craig Miller) does his best to figure out what is going on between Bruce and Henry, even to the point of hiring an incompetent private detective (Joe Feldman). Dutch is a type to be sure — likely a first cousin to Benny VanBuren, manager of the Washington Senators in Damn Yankees, written and set in the same time period as Bang the Drum Slowly — but Miller portrays him with an appealing combination of humor and exasperation.
As word of Bruce’s illness spreads among the other players, initially as the result of an unplanned revelation by Henry to “Goose” Williams (John Tweel), they too are transformed. One by one, they begin to see Bruce in a kinder and fuller light, and this has the effect of binding the team closer together and helping them win. Harris may make too much of fatal disease as a team-building device; even in the 1950s, it’s questionable whether a team — let’s say, the Yankees of the Mantle/Ford/Martin era — would have responded in quite this way. But a certain romanticism about baseball is allowable, pervading even great writing about the game (e.g., “Bull Durham,” far and away the best baseball movie ever made). What is odder is the strangely formal, almost arch style of speech the script gives to the actors, almost as though the entire roster of the Mammoths had attended a few too many performances of Guys and Dolls.
With the exception of Goose, an older player whose career is nearly over, and who fretfully faces a financial abyss as he leaves the game, the remaining team members and other minor roles are sketched very lightly in the script, and are often double-cast. Tweel, for example, also plays the team’s stingy owner, and Heather Benjamin plays his hard-nosed businesswoman wife as well as Bruce’s mother. Jorge Silva and Brandon Mitchell double as ballplayers and doctors, while Ric Andersen is triple-cast as Bruce’s father, a team functionary, and a ballplayer. Kyle Lynch, as the colorfully named Piney Woods, sings a soulful rendition of the song from which the show’s title is derived, while Arturo Tolentino and Oghene-Bruru Ajueyitsi (who wears 42 as his uniform number, by the way) play two black ballplayers who resent the southern white boy Bruce and are among the last to accept him. The highlight for the ensemble occurs during a rambling attempt by Dutch at an inspirational speech that one of the Hispanic players (Roberto Diego, played by Joe Feldman) translates into Spanish for another (George Gonzalez, played by Robbie Priego). The translation is the funniest moment in the show. A chilling contrast to the generally warm tone of the piece is provided by Katie (Lizzi Albert), a calculating hooker with a heart of pure ice seeking to profit from Bruce’s life insurance.
The highlight of Arlington Century Theater’s technical production is Ed Moser’s detailed and well-executed sound design, which times the crack of a bat or a pebble splashing in the water precisely with actions by the actors. The set design (Brandon Guillams) is simple and functional, with two rows of lockers set along the first and third base sides of an infield layout painted on the stage floor. Cast members heft rather formidable-looking chairs and other furniture on and off stage between the play’s frequent short scenes. Kudos to costume designer Marilyn Johnson for coming up with baseball uniforms that actually look credible for the 1950s. It is to be hoped that between American Century and Arlington County, a way will be found to moderate the temperature of the facility. Intermission conversation amongst audience members, normally about reactions to the first act, focused almost exclusively on the stifling heat in the house.
One of the important themes of the play is the extent to which casual cruelty hurts not only the emotions but also the performance of those against it is directed. (Richie Incognito take note.) At play’s end, Henry reflects not only on how his teammates affected Bruce’s life but also on his own forgetfulness of Bruce’s needs, concluding, in one the best last lines of any play, “From here on in, I rag nobody.” Not a bad thought to take out of the theater.
Artistic Director’s Notes
You are about to see a dual theatrical rarity. First of all, this is a stage play about baseball. There are fewer stage plays about baseball than there are stage plays about almost any other non-obscure topic. Second, it’s a good stage play about baseball. That’s even rarer.
The fact that Bang the Drum Slowly has so little company on the script shelf under “baseball” at first seems shocking. Not only is the sport an enduring American symbol and constantly recycled metaphor for life, conflict, victory, defeat, and everything in between, it also possesses, of all the sports, the greatest similarity to the structure of drama. The game unfolds over time, taking unexpected and sometimes unprecedented turns. There are heroes (who may fail), villains (who may prevail), as well as critical and endlessly varied supporting characters. There is success, defeat, crisis, suspense, retribution, violence, surprise, happenstance, despair, and exhilaration. There is a rich tapestry of history, tradition, and legend to incorporate and explore.
These qualities have made the sport the favorite of all sports among novelists, essayists, and short-story writers. There have been over 130 novels about baseball alone and far more short stories and essays. Why so few plays?
That answer becomes obvious after just a little thought, too. Most of the drama in baseball takes place on the field, and it is a big field. You can’t simulate a game in a theater; you can’t even throw a fastball or hit one without risking disaster and a lawsuit. Miming the game in various ways is fun — You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown has a musical number that does that nicely — but you can’t do it much, and it still isn’t baseball. Then there is the fact that few actors are as large, fit, or coordinated as professional athletes, as well as the fact that playing baseball involves more people that a small theater can afford to pay actors.
The most famous and successful baseball stage show is Damn Yankees, the long-running Broadway musical from 1955 (with a book by George Abbot and Douglass Wallop, and music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross), and even that classic suffers from this problem. The climax of the show takes pace during a baseball game, and we can’t even see it: the book stoops to the desperate device of having the audience listen to the radio play-by-play. Thus the action of the few produced baseball plays there are (fewer than twenty, counting Damn Yankees and Bang the Drum Slowly, and that’s being generous — counting August Wilson’s Fences, for example) takes place off the field and sometimes far off the field, like in the bleachers (Bleacher Bums, a 1978 play about die-hard Chicago Cubs fans).
The time frame and format of the theater also doesn’t fit well with baseball. The game itself has been often compared to an epic novel, in the manner that every team’s season unfolds over time. Epic novels are difficult to translate to the stage or, if they make the transition, the result is often a very long show, like Nicholas Nickleby or The Grapes of Wrath.
Mark Harris and Eric Simonson’s Bang the Drum Slowly succeeds where most of the rest fail because it was adapted from a Harris novel that uniquely lends itself to dramatization. The novel is narrated in the first person, providing a traditional and useful theatrical device. Through the story covers traditional baseball fiction territory in some respects — most baseball dramas involve something that turns a losing baseball team into surprise winners, be it a new player, the assistance of angels, a mad scientist, a magic bat, or the Devil — it does so in a realistic and believable way. In Bang the Drum Slowly, the presence of human tragedy in their midst turns a squabbling group of players into a close and supportive team.
The story is also about character — not a game or a season, but how the human beings who play baseball adapt to the experience and live with each other over time. Bang the Drum Slowly is about the game, and it extracts wisdom, drama, and comedy from observing how ordinary people like those who play it are, when they are not hitting, running, and throwing.
Jack Marshall, Artistic Director
Photos by Johannes Markus
- Henry “Author” Wiggen: Evan Crump
- Holly Wiggen, Lawyer: Mary Beth Luckenbaugh
- Bruce Pearson: Richie Montgomery
- Jonah Brooks: Arturo Tolentino
- George Gonzalez, Alf: Robby Priego
- Piney Woods, Aleck Olson: Kyle Lynch
- Roberto Diego, Detective Rogers: Joe Feldman
- Sid Goldman, Hotel Doctor: Jorge Silva
- Robert “Ugly” Jones, Doctor Clark: Brandon Mitchell
- Lester T. Moors, Harold “Goose” Williams: John Tweel
- Patricia Moors, Mrs. Pearson: Heather Benjamin
- Bradley R. Lord, Paul “Horse” Byrd, Mr. Pearson: Ric Andersen
- Herman “Dutch” Snell: Craig Miller
- Perry Simpson: Oghene-Bruru “Bru” Ajueyitsi
- Katie: Lizzi Albert
- Director: Ellen Dempsey
- Production Manager: Ed Moser
- Stage Manager: Lindsey E. Moore
- Set Design/ Master Carpenter: Brandon Guilliams
- Scenic Painting: Katie Wertz
- Lighting Design: Peter Caress
- Sound Design: Ed Moser
- Costume Design: Marilyn Johnson
- Properties Design: Kevin Laughon
- Board Operator: Chris Beatley
- Wardrobe Assistant: Rosemary Westbrook
- Publicist: Emily Morrison
- Production Photography and Cover Photo: Johannes Markus
- Program Design: Michael Sherman
- House Manager/Volunteer Coordinator: Joli Provost
Disclaimer: American Century Theater provided a complimentary media ticket to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10047.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.