Story: Ten-year-old Joe Shostak has a problem with anger management. His Little League baseball manager tells him so after seeing him get in a fight with a loud-mouthed player from another team. There are problems at home, too, as Joe’s parents have separated over money issues.
Joe escapes his stressful life by hanging out at a local baseball card shop run by a friendly man named Flip. Knowing Joe’s love for baseball, Flip lets him borrow a treasured card that Joe can use for a school report on a famous African-American hero. Joe chooses Jackie Robinson, the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
Somehow, Joe magically ends up in that year in the office of Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, moments before Rickey signs Robinson to a contract. Joe finds himself living history, compounded by the fact that he apparently has re-emerged in time as a young black boy at the height of the Jim Crow era. Can he get the information he needs for his report and by some mystical method also return to the present?
Highlights: Playwright Steven Dietz, who earlier adapted novelist Dan Gutman’s book, Honus and Me, about legendary Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner, has also adapted Jackie and Me, another Gutman story about a baseball icon. Metro Theater Company, which has collaborated on a project every other year with Edison Theatre since 2007, offers a delightful rendition of Dietz’s 90-minute work designed for audiences age 9 and above.
Other Info: Reginald Pierre is a smart choice to play Robinson. He has the look and style of a college-educated athlete, a rarity in the 1940s for any ball player let alone a black player. Roosevelt graduated from UCLA, where he starred in baseball, football, basketball and track. “Baseball was my worst sport,” he tells an incredulous Rickey during his interview, in which he also remarks that he can beat Rickey at any game, including tennis and horseshoes, with his talent and competitive fire.
Pierre displays the class and dignity of Robinson, as much in his family life and his friendliness toward young Joe as with his teammates, many of whom despised having a black man on their team, along with hostile competitors and hateful fans who would send death threats to him.
David Wassilak captures the mannerisms and appearance of the erudite Rickey, a well-dressed gentleman who etched his mark in the game with the St. Louis Cardinals before making history by signing Robinson to a major league contract. Wassilak shows youths in the audience what kinds of taunts and injustices Robinson would face daily, while also depicting Rickey’s resolute support of his protégé.
Others in the cast include Adam Moskal as Joe’s grammar-school nemesis as well as the scheming equipment manager of the Dodgers. Kelley Weber and Jeffrey Awada portray Joe’s economically struggling but loving parents, while Kurt Hellerich is able to convince an audience that he’s a 9-year-old boy with wide eyes and an inquisitive heart in the midst of the racially electrified environment.
Nicholas Kryah smoothly etches the roles of the genial shop owner Flip as well as a neat little cameo as one George Herman Ruth in the twilight of his life, and Simchah Sharath does a nice job as Jackie’s wife, Rachel. Ensemble supporting roles are filled by Paul Cereghino, Mark Holzum and Susan Elaine Rasch.
Dietz’s drama works in humorous anecdotes about history, mathematics and other school subjects for the students in attendance, who are treated to a nifty set designed by Scott Neale that showcases a Little League field, Rickey’s office, the kitchen at Joe’s house and background billboards for Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, home of the Dodgers before they made their fan-crushing move to the West Coast.
Lou Bird’s costumes match the look of modern folks down on their luck as well as the handsome attire of Rickey, Robinson and Rachel back in the day. John Wylie’s lights help set the mood of the era as does Rusty Wandall’s sound design, complete with field announcer, and Emily Frei’s atmospheric props.
It’s all tightly directed by Tim Ocel, who keeps his eye on the ball and his focus on the attention span of grade schoolers, many of whom doubtless never have heard of Robinson, Rickey, Wagner, Ty Cobb or maybe even the Babe himself.
While the message is necessarily simplistic to reach its target audience, Jackie and Me is fun at the old ballpark, as our own Cardinals announcer famously pronounces.
Play: Jackie and Me
Group: Metro Theater Company
Venue: Edison Theatre, Washington University
Dates: Through January 27
Tickets: $8-$18; contact 935-6543 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak