If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

PULITZER PRIZE WINNER FOR WESTPORT PLAYHOUSE

The late actor Jason Miller is probably best remembered as the handsome young priest in “The Exorcist,” a role which garnered him a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 1974. But Miller, who died at the age of 62 in 2001, also had a memorable playwrighting career, highlighted by his 1973 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning drama, “That Championship Season.”  The play is currently in revival at the Westport Country Playhouse and, though some seams show, the play still resonates nearly 40 years later.

Set in an expansive, old-fashioned living room in Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna Valley, “The Championship Season” eavesdrops on the 20th annual reunion of a basketball team at the home of their beloved Coach (John Doman).  The entire three acts of the drama (wisely presented without intermission at Westport) is played in real time as the men drink and reminisce about their former glory days when anything seemed possible for golden athletes in their prime.
 
Belying the celebration, however, are the broken dreams, dirty secrets, petty resentments and dark recriminations bubbling just beneath the surface of ribald jokes and fond reminiscences.  Miller explores with uncommon candor how boy/men living only off past glories are doomed to failure in the present when the crowd has left the stadium and reality sets in. The Coach, like Wily Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” is a delusional narcissist who has told his boys to “never forget” their storied history. In the process, though, it appears he has done them immeasurable harm.

At Westport, there was tentativeness in some of the performances and line problems evident on opening night, somewhat diminishing the momentum and power of the play. But under the astute direction of Mark Lamos, the play does feature a strong cast that, with time, should become an excellent ensemble. The wonderful character actor Robert Clohessy is a perfect foil as the town’s dim-bulb mayor whose love for his Coach has led him to make some regrettable decisions.
 
Skipp Sudduth, as the most financially successful of the group, is a coarse reminder that money can not buy class or respect and Tom Nelis is terrific, stealing scenes as the most sardonic member of the team, an alcoholic with a potent secret to share.  John Doman’s Coach (fondly recalled for his supporting role on TV’s “Damages” last season) is the play’s powerful center, as he must be.  With his casual racism and misguided authority played with no holds barred, Doman’s fearless performance is cause for admiration.  Only Lou Liberator, as the Mayor’s luckless fundraiser, seems adrift in the group, not yet convincing or fully incorporated into the ensemble.

David Gallo’s lived-in scenic design of dusty browns and well-worn furniture is finely appointed with a sharp eye for detail, and Jeff Nellis’ soft lighting sets the correct mood throughout.  I did expect more, however, from the notable fight director B.H. Barry than the wan fisticuffs staged for this otherwise accomplished revival.
“That Championship Season” continues at the Westport Country Playhouse through September 12, 2009.  For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

This review appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning September 2, 2009.


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