“That Championship Season”

Play:        “That Championship Season”

Group:        Dramatic License Productions

Venue:        Dramatic License Theatre, ARTropolis arts district, Chesterfield Mall

Dates:        August 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22

Tickets:    From $15 to $20; contact 636-220-7012 or www.dramaticlicenseproductions.com

Story:    It’s been 20 years since George, Phil, Tom, James and Martin were shaped into a championship high school basketball team by their dedicated coach.  The lifelong bachelor, a staunch Catholic in the rugged Lackawanna Valley region of northeastern Pennsylvania, reached the pinnacle of his teaching career with these five young men, who somehow beat a physically superior team from Philadelphia to nab the state title.

    Now, they’ve returned to Coach’s modest house for a reunion ritual.  It’s tinged with a bit of melancholy, however, as Martin has never participated.  George is now mayor of the town, James is a junior high school principal and Phil is a successful businessman, while Tom is an alcoholic who has drifted back from the West Coast for this bittersweet gathering.  As George mentions his worries about his re-election campaign against a formidable opponent, Phil eventually lets it be known that George can’t necessarily count on him for political contributions.

    The long, drinking binge of an evening reveals betrayal, bigotry, animosity, jealousy and a litany of other sins that Coach has tried hard to shield from his “boys,” not realizing that his own prejudices have shaped their latter-day reality.

Highlights:    Actor Jason Miller scored an amazing coup back in 1973 when he starred in the brilliant and fiercely scary film, “The Exorcist,” while simultaneously nabbing the Tony Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this searing, riveting drama he penned.

Dramatic License Productions claims that this is the first performance of “That Championship Season” on a St. Louis professional theater stage, and it is an absolutely magnificent presentation under the incisive direction of Alan Knoll.  Knoll has assembled a cast of impeccable credentials and imposing acting ability to offer a gritty, visceral look at the desperate lives of men who haven’t learned to grow older gracefully or possess the slightest glimmer of wisdom.

Other Info:    The single set designed so carefully by Courtney Sanazaro maintains the claustrophobic, stifling atmosphere of Coach’s tiny home, a refuge that matches his minuscule view of the world.  Photos of Coach’s icons, namely Presidents John F. Kennedy and Teddy Roosevelt and Senator Joseph McCarthy, loom above the austere surroundings of well-worn furniture, an old phonograph and a table that features the massive silver trophy from the state basketball championship, courtesy of props providers Peggy Knock and Kim Furlow.

    Jane Sullivan’s costumes pinpoint the personalities of each character, from George’s rumpled suit to James’ tie and short-sleeve shirt to Phil’s fancy duds, and Bess Moynihan’s harsh lighting reveals the characters’ woeful spiritual deficiencies.  Joseph Pini’s sound design suitably stays within Coach’s bygone era as Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass play their ‘70s pop melodies.

    Performances by the cast are uniformly outstanding.  Kevin Beyer has never been better, filling Coach’s dominant personality with all the fire and brimstone he can muster for a man who lived in his father’s foreboding shadow as much as he now commands the attention of a quartet of men approaching 40 with his own toxic leadership.  Beyer seems on the verge of having a stroke during the performance because of his intensity, absolutely refusing to let his “boys” capitulate to the inner demons that he himself has perpetuated with his casual, thoughtless bigotry and old-fashioned discipline.

    R. Travis Estes admirably fills the part of George, a simple sort who somehow has risen to mayor through a combination of luck and circumstance, and now sees his career, fragile marriage and shaky grip on reality crumbling about him.  Cameron Ulrich displays the crude, vulgar power that Phil has used to shape his own successful business, which he built on a foundation laid by his workaholic father and which ironically consumes him as it did the man he resented.

B. Weller masterfully portrays the stifled James, a man-child who has spent his life robotically responding to duty, brilliantly demonstrated when he immediately jumps up at the request of Coach for a quick, private chat.  And Charlie Barron brings a sobering dose of irony to the bitter alcoholic Tom, who knows why Martin has avoided these reunions but hasn’t the courage to support him.

With everything that is right about this production, the one glaring weakness is the decision to set the story in 1999, as Miller did in a teleplay for Showtime in that year.  While the original setting of 1973, or even the update in 1982, made sense, the broad, open bigotry (vulgarisms for all manner of ethnic groups), the adulation for McCarthy (who faded away in 1953), scandalous references to communism and the ludicrous inclusions of George Clooney, cell phones and earrings for men are just foolish and do nothing but diminish the story.

Miller chose unwisely in his attempt to modernize the era, forgetting that stories often are firmly entrenched in the societal norms and mores of their original telling.  Yes, the problems remain, but the ‘packaging’ is of a more specific era.

Despite that glaring timeline conundrum, “That Championship Season” is a taut, intense and absorbing evening of theater.

Rating:        A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.