BWW Reviews: THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON Scores At Susquehanna Stage Co
Playwright Jason Miller galvanized the theatrical community when he unleashed THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON on it in 1972. It took the Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Play, and followed them with the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It was originally produced, then filmed in 1982, and revived on Broadway in 2011 with all-star casts (Richard Dysart and Paul Sorvino on Broadway, Bruce Dern, Stacy Keach, and Sorvino in the film, and Miller's son Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland and Chris Noth in the revival). It is still a riveting piece of work, requiring a team of top-flight actors all past their wet-behind-the-ears youth, and a director who can keep them reined together as tightly as possible. Jim Johnson has achieved that directorial necessity at Susquehanna Stage Company, and the production is well worth the attention that serious drama so frequently fails to attract in this region.
In its raw essence, this is one of the primal theatrical pieces of male bonding - four of five champion basketball players and their coach, together at their private twentieth reunion party. They've done this before, and are only hoping they may be able to do it again, given that their coach is neither young nor well. However, these are five men for whom high school - or at least The Players' senior year - was quite definitely the best period of their lives, because for all of their success on paper since 1952, these five in 1972 have become losers, four of them still under 40, at the game of life. One is alcoholic, one is an ineffectual and corrupt mayor, one an equally ineffectual middle school principal. The rich businessman inherited his money and enjoys squandering it, and the coach was forced into retirement for assaulting a student. Yet they still regard themselves as winners, because they have locked themselves into 1952, when their Lackawanna-area Catholic school team beat a Philadelphia team at the state championship in the last ten seconds of the game.
If there is any serious defect in this production it is the script itself. Rightly a Pulitzer-winner in 1973, it has not necessarily aged well, and perceptions of men and of masculinity have changed drastically in the past 40 years. What was then a scathing look at contemporary society is now a scathing look at the past, and one has to force oneself to remember that what we see and hear on stage is how people saw themselves forty years ago. It is the world of Richard Nixon as President, the world of insurance agents viewed as small-town business kings, the days when strip-mining was a regular practice and environmental concerns were considered some sort of fringe silliness - a time when Jewish politicians were viewed with suspicion and the word "Communist" still was fraught with meaning and danger to some people.
The coach still regards the former players as "my boys," and he sees himself as the major influence in their lives - "I made you winners." He is, in fact, a dominant figure in their lives still, the one expected to make their problems go away, to fix political problems, business problems, even marital crises, and he sincerely believes that his coaching platitudes, delivered with sufficient conviction, will do just these things. The problem, of course, is that his charges still believe it as well. This is a man who believes that "they" killed both Kennedy and Joe McCarthy, who believes that might makes right, or at least makes a win, which becomes a right. He is the hard-line Catholic school basketball coach of legend, in the flesh, and like his idol Teddy Roosevelt, he carries a big stick, even when it is only metaphorical. Larry Gessler as Coach is all of these things, terrifying even in age and now-weakness for his ability to retain his hold over these four younger men. His performance is powerful from his first moment on stage, and should be the standard for this region.
The four younger men have put their lives, to some degree, in Coach's hands. Perhaps Tom Daley hasn't. He's the one the others view as the loser, the alcoholic ne'er-do-well drifter. Perhaps if he had listened to Coach, he would be more successful, but as masks are unveiled throughout the evening at Coach's home, perhaps the others are no more successful and he is the only honest man among them. Jason Genise-Gdula, as Tom, has a combination of timing and delivery that make his one-liners scattered so frequently throughout the show stand out. There is, between those, his apparent second-fiddle position to his brother, and his appearance, a vague resemblance to that other notable Tom of 1972, Tommy Smothers. Tom is more than he appears, however, and Genise-Gdula conveys that remarkably.
Scott Schmittel as James Daley, Tom's brother and school principal hoping to ride on his friend-the-mayor's coattails to the position of local school superintendent, presents a convincing picture of a man whose feet are on far less solid ground than he believes. Bruce Weaver as George Sikowski, mayor, ticket-fixer, and business-favor-granter, provides the central drama - he barely won his first election, is challenged by a Jewish near-outsider for re-election, and he appears to be losing the support of friend and teammate Phil Romano, played by Brent Richards. And then there's the matter of George's marriage. Can Coach fix everything for these four men who, thanks to his determination to make them men, to make them winners, have never really learned to wipe their own noses?
The ending of THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, to modern eyes, may be wildly flawed, ancient friendship and male bonding triumphing momentarily over what we would now consider unforgivable, with a contrived and sexist basis to its very (and most likely very temporary) solution, but the cast and director do succeed in making the presentation believable for the moment, which is the most important thing. This is not the sort of male bonding that anyone now hopes to see, but it is a portrayal of how many men did think at the time, and it is worth seeing where we came from to realize how far we have changed in these past four decades.
THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON plays at Susquehanna Stage Co. through March 3. Call 717-426-1277 for tickets, or visit www.susquehannastageco.com.
Photo credit: Susquehanna Stage Co.