Adapted by Eric Simonson
Directed by Michael Menendian
At Raven Theatre, Chicago
Moving friendship drama offers a lesson about dying and personal dignity
Set in 1955 in the locker room of the New York Mammoths (the old New York Giants?) in a time when baseball players made so little money playing ball that they needed to have a ‘winter job’ to make ends meet. Those honorable players played as much for the love of playing as for cash. Based on the 1973 film staring Michael Moriarty as star pitcher Henry “Author” Wiggen, Robert De Niro as the 3rd-string dim-witted catcher Bruce Pearson, and Vincent Gardena as “Dutch” the team’s manager, adapter Eric Simonson’s script contains all the frat boy styled bravado present in the old boy ’50’s ball teams. The ensemble work here is terrific containing all the stereotypical ball players: the over weigh Latino complete with his translator; the wacky white boys with nick-names like “Ugly, ” “Horse” and “Goose.” There is the homer run-hitting Jewish boy – Sid Goldman (Jeff Taylor) and the usual group of sluggers that comprise a ’50’s Major League team. The funny horseplay and razzing fuels the male bonding from a group of men dedicated to excelling in a team sport.
When star pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Stegall) gets a call from his baseball in-season roommate Bruce Pearson (Kevin Duvall) to join him at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, Wiggen, out of loyalty, agrees to help the dim-witted but likable guy. The news of Pearson’s illness – a terminally case of Hodgkin’s disease – Wiggen rallies around the simple-minded catcher. Pearson and Wiggen’s bond is about loyalty, friendship based on a kind of ‘father-son’ relationship that finds the star pitcher guiding and shielding his son-like innocent boy catcher. Michael Stegall and Kevin Duvall easily establish their basis of non-sexual friendship often found in long season involvement in sports. Pearson is a marginal talent whose rooster spot is in jeopardy due to his modest baseball talent. Once Wiggen realizes that Bruce strongly wants no one other than Wiggen to know about his life-threatening condition, he decides to take a bold move to ensure that Peasron will spend his last days playing ball for the Mammoths by insisting that, in his contract, Bruce Pearson and himself will play together on the same team. Dutch (Tim Walsh), the manager reluctantly agrees. Dutch vows to find out what’s the basis of the two player bond.
Much of the play revolves around keeping Pearson’s illness secret as the Mammoth’s struggle with the Washington Senators to win the pennant. The inter-play and the group dynamic of a ball club is filled with rousing taunting, kidding and physicality that includes drinking and general male horseplay. Once the word gets out that Pearson is terminally ill, the taunts toward him stop and an awkward, almost reverence treatment of Pearson evolves. The players begin to treat Bruce differently and each other as well, and the team’s play and mood both improve. A calming effect that allows Pearson to contribute some key playing inspires the team toward winning.
We see how such news and the guys inability to help Pearson gets them focused less on themselves and more on common goals. Loyalty and true friendship leads to Bruce Pearson having his last days spent in total acceptance and some glory from his teammates. Devoid of sentimentality, Bang The Drum Slowly, plays out as an uplifting story of how friendship and loyalty can make life worth living and acceptance of one’s fate can liberate the soul. This is a heartwarming story that covers much more than baseball – it’s about how awkwardly we deal with death and how the basic goodness of an individual can inspire at team.
Michale Stegall’s Wiggen is the poster boy for loyalty; while Kevin Duvsall’s Pearson is the golly gee wiz Southern boy; and Tim Walsh is commanding blow-hard manager in director Michael Menendian’s fast-paced and often funny baseball play. It is refreshing to see how ball players lived before the free agency contracts make them fickle. The ensemble work here is first class. The Cubs could take some lessons from Dutch’s players.
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For more info checkout the Bang The Drum Slowly page at theatreinchicago.com
At Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL, call 773-338-2177, www.raventheatre.com, tickets $30, $5 discount for students/seniors, Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 20 minutes with intermission, through June 30, 2012