By Marlene S. Gaylinn

“That Champion Season” received rousing cheers during the “sold out” opening night at the Westport Country Playhouse.  Why was everyone so moved?  The answer is the play’s “Everyman” appeal, plus the Playhouse’s prestigious director, Mark Lamos who chose to present it.

 Few dramas focus on the enigma of reaching middle age from the male perspective.  And, for that matter, few serious plays with an all male cast can even hold the audience’s attention for ninety minutes without an intermission.  So what’s the hook here?  There is only one set, not much of a plot, and no traditional climax.  Yet Jason Miller, who was not as prolific a playwright as his contemporary Arthur Miller, won many drama awards when “That Champion Season” premiered off-Broadway and transferred to the Booth Theatre, in the early 1970’s, for a record-breaking run.  In addition, the play had wide exposure when it was made into two films and a TV movie during a period of great social change.

The “hook” is that as a writer, Miller (who was an actor too) was able to present a slice of life that audiences can easily recognize.  The profanity and open prejudices against women, Jews and Blacks were your average Joe’s remarks down at the local bar.  The horsing around and individual rivalries remind us of social clubs or places where mostly men are employed.  Trying to live a moral, purposeful life while reaching for our dreams are universal goals.  When we fail, the support of others helps us to get back on track.  And that’s the whole story!

In this play, the long-lasting brotherhood of a former, Catholic high school basketball team, whether “for better or for worse,” is a microcosm of American sports.  The code of sticking together in order to reach that final goal of glory is adhered to like a religion.  Even though the players are now middle-aged and have strayed off the moral path, like warriors marching to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” their coach keeps leading them on towards redemption – although he himself is not a perfect model.

 The action centers around four men who are celebrating the anniversary of their high school championship game at their coach’s house. This may be the last tribute to their aging, sick mentor.  In this small town of Pennsylvania, the former players’ lives have become closely intertwined.  While the men are stepping on each other’s toes and revelations of prejudices, political double-dealings, the abusing of handicapped women -- including another team mate’s wife, they are discovering that because of their inner flaws, there’s not one winner among them.  A high school championship won under questionable moral standards has now become the real game of life. 

As a team, the actors play off each other pretty well.  Individually, the acting is a bit uneven but that could be attributed to opening night.  The actors come in all shapes, sizes and personalities.  John Doman plays the team’s aging but trim and fit “Coach.” Rivals Skipp Sudduth, as “Phil,” the entrepreneur, and Robert Clohessy as “George,” the mayor, are big enough to be football linemen.  In contrast, Lou Liberatore, as “James,” the disillusioned school administrator, seems rather small to have been a basketball champion.  The lost alcoholic, “Tom,” played by Tom Nelis, is too gentlemanly to picture as an aggressive sportsman.  Yet miraculously, everyone pulls together to give a fine performance.

“That Champion Season” plays at The Westport Country Playhouse until September 12.   Box Office:  203-227-4177.


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