Review: THE GREAT LEAP at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By: Sep. 17, 2019

Review: THE GREAT LEAP at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Steppenwolf Theatre Company's season opening production of Lauren Yee's THE GREAT LEAP combines the energy of the final moments of a major sporting event alongside moments of great intimacy and intensity for which the company is largely known. Set designer Justin Humphries has transformed the Upstairs Theatre into a small-scale basketball court, while Keith Parham's lighting and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca's clever sound cues (pay close attention to the intermission playlist, as it's particularly inspired) mimic the spectacle you'd see at a sports stadium. The design is exceedingly clever, and while it doesn't quite reach the immensity of a Bulls game at the United Center, the production on the whole is a unique theatrical experience.

Beyond the setting itself, both Yee's script and director Jesca Prudencio's staging wholly communicate the love of the game and the immense passion for basketball that drives the play's four characters. It is a challenge to have just four actors at times communicate the energy of an entire basketball team, but it's easy to believe that all the characters love basketball and are willing to sacrifice the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears for the sport.

That's exactly what we see at the top of the play when 17-year-old Chinese-American Manford (Glenn Obrero) makes his way to the basketball court at the University of San Francisco, in which he makes an impassioned case to basketball coach Saul (Keith Kupferer, as gruff and winsome as ever) to join the team. But Manford doesn't just want a chance to play college ball. He wants to cement a spot at the team's upcoming exhibition game against Beijing University in China. For Manford, the game is a means to show off his basketball skills and also an opportunity to further connect with his Chinese identity. For Saul, the upcoming game means a chance to reunite with Beijing University coach Wen Chang (James Seol) after 18 years-and he doesn't want to risk losing the match. The play takes place primarily in 1989, with some scenes set in 1971, layering the specific events onto the larger historical context of the anti-communist Tiananmen Square protests that took place that year .Though occasionally the intersection of THE GREAT LEAP'S events and Chinese history feels too pat, Yee largely manages to allow the context to deepen the play's meaning and avoid the didactical.

The play's focus on basketball makes it unusual, but Yee provides enough of the rules of the game itself to keep things interesting and lend the characters a level of authenticity when it comes to their knowledge. Still, those unfamiliar with basketball should feel no need to shy away from THE GREAT LEAP. Likewise, basketball fans may find Yee's play particularly intriguing.

Above all, THE GREAT LEAP demonstrates that professional basketball provides a surprising and powerful link between the United States and China-and also, of course, between the characters themselves. Obrero nails Manford's off-the-walls passion for basketball and his frenetic, impulsive nature. His performance demonstrates his character's youthfulness and endless desire to go after what he wants-even if all the details aren't necessarily thought through in advance. Kupferer's Saul provides a counterpoint to Manford's Energizer Bunny personality level, but the two share a strong and common bond when it comes to the love of the game. Seol displays Wen Chang's more grounded, but no less fervent, devotion to basketball, and his more reserved performance echoes the character's backstory. As Manford's cousin Connie, Deanna Myers is lovely and vibrant.

Though THE GREAT LEAP has some pacing issues in the second act, the integrity of the characters and their appreciation for basketball never falters. And the play's final few scenes deliver all of the excitement that one would expect from an all-important sports match. The absolute final scene, while well-acted, does become too much of a button. But on the whole, THE GREAT LEAP provides a unique theater experience that makes the basket.

THE GREAT LEAP runs in the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf, 1650 North Halsted, through October 20. Tickets are $20-$89. Visit or call 312.335.1650.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Review by Rachel Weinberg