Locker Room Tales: That Championship Season at Westport Country Playhouse

 

David Begelman

In Jason Miller’s 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning drama, That Championship Season, five men have at each other like a swarm of furious bees too attached to avoid stinging each other relentlessly. Except the occasion is the reunion of four former basketball players and their coach. Their team won the 1957 Pennsylvania State championship twenty years earlier.

The four include the inept mayor of a small town, George (played by Robert Clohessy), whose notable achievement was to provide the local zoo with an elephant which promptly dies shortly after delivery. Then there is James (played by Lou Liberatore), a junior high school principal soured on his job, who has been George’s campaign manager. Phil (Skipp Sudduth) is a wheeler-dealer, a philandering strip-miner who lives in the fast lane, drives expensive cars, and who is secretly wavering in his support of George’s campaign, while Tom (played by Tom Nells), who has missed three reunions of the group in the past, is an inebriate with a flair for acerbic one-liners. Tom denies he has a drinking problem, observing, “I get all the booze I want.”

Finally, there is Coach (played by John Doman), the titular head of the group, a self-styled sage who goads the others into holding on to past glory that is the glue binding them together.
Coach is given to high sounding speeches about the value of aggressive manhood and dirty politics. He spews ethnic slurs with abandon, and extols the virtues of such figures as Senator Joseph McCarthy and Father Coughlin, a radio personality who railed against the Jewish influence in national affairs.

Ironically enough, basketball, among the most popular pastimes in suburban high schools of small communities of the era, was also a sport most resistant to integration at the time of the play’s action.

Although much older than the others, Coach is not above putting on a display of push-ups for them, despite the fact that he is occasionally wracked with the pain of stomach adhesions resulting from an operation. His advice to the others takes the form of pep-talks, pumped up as if he were back in the good old days of shouting orders to his team in play on the court.
Mr. Miller’s script may have enjoyed more popularity when it was originally produced at the Public Theater in 1972. Today, the macho swaggering of Coach and his underlings might well strike some of us as a bit over the top as stage-setting for the conflicts among its five characters. After all, the Archie Bunker mentality has long since forfeited any claim to a sympathetic hearing.

Broadsides in the play against Jews, Poles, Italians, African-Americans, and women, even while expressing the attitudes of fictional characters, are delivered like cannon shots. Audiences in all likelihood wince at these salvos, peppered as they are throughout the script. One example would be the fun George and Tom have recalling the “humping” of an epileptic girl in the former’s garage. George gleefully reminds Tom she was retarded, not epileptic. A hilarious moment for them; hardly one for any audience with a modicum of feeling for the less fortunate.   
When George, sick to his stomach at one point in the play, vomits into the trophy symbolizing the team’s past victory, a metaphor is born. Things are not what they seem to be under the surface of bravado and glory symbolized by the trophy; they are considerably worse than imagined.

Coach’s avuncular stance provides the cover under which the club hides its moral failings. His exhortations, never far from bullying, are seemingly the only antidote to the bickering and back-stabbing that breaks out among its members when freed from its seductive cloud of unknowing. Tom sees this better than the others, although through his alcoholic haze. As in the later O’Neill plays, it is the fiction that keeps the characters going.

Director Mark Lamos has his five performers take their respective roles head-on, and there is little in the way of repose between clashes that would serve to build up to them in a more nuanced way. As a result, all five characters are so broadly delineated, traces of caricature inevitably creep in. Yet it is often hard to determine how much of this lies in the script or individual portrayals. In the current production, action is perhaps a bit too fast-paced for comfort, while the show seems to lack the innovative touch we are accustomed to in Mr. Lamos’ previous projects.

There is also a lot of milling around when characters are not doing push-ups (Coach), falling down stairs (Tom), or being felled by a roundhouse punch (James). It’s as though dialogue had to be delivered standing up, despite there being some pretty comfortable furniture adorning David Gallo’s impressive set (and one faithful to original script).

Playwright Miller’s exposé of the American myth of rugged masculinity, sports mania, intolerance, and Vince Lombardi pieties may have a point. But it is old hat for most of us nowadays.

That Championship Season opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport, CT 06880 off Route 1, on August 25, 2009 and runs until September 12, 2009. Tickets range from $35 to $55. Students and educators are eligible for 50% discounts. Groups of 10 or more save up to 30%. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at (203)-227-4177, or toll-free at 1-888-927-7529 on the Internet at www.westportplayhouse.org

 

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