That Championship Season
Big Dawg Productions
Cape Fear Playhouse
Nov. 4th -7th, & 11th -14th, 8 p.m. or Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $15 – $18
There are teams and there is opposition. The idea: Work with the team, and exploit the weakness of the opposition. It’s all part of the game, playing within the rules to sweet victory. This is the root of Jason Miller’s 1972 Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner, “That Championship Season,” now running at Cape Fear Playhouse. The beauty of simplifying life into teams comes with strengthening the whole; the reality comes in the humanity of individuals, each of whom have faults and the ability to think for themselves. The team mentality must get challenged at some point.
Miller’s play is set in 1972 small-town America, outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania, a place where Christian beliefs share as much passion as the rejection of diversity, and city or government progression. Bigotry against most everyone runs deep here, from Jews and blacks, to Arabs and Commis, or anyone, really, who isn’t like most of its white citizenry. Though I’d love to say it’s a “dated” scenario, such a statement’s only preposterous—that small-town attitude still exists. Many times it’s part of a place where people refer to high school as their “glory days.” Still holding on to wins for homecoming king and queen or a sporting championship, these earlier-life moments define everything thereafter. Such is the case of four basketball players and their coach, all of whom are still riding high from their 1952 state championship basketball game. Each year they return to reminisce and reconnect, to build their “team” through life’s highs and lows.
Directed by Lou Criscuolo (artistic director for Opera House Theatre Company) for Big Dawg Productions, “That Championship Season” truly shines from excellent casting and exceptional acting, especially because of Joe Gallison—best known for his many film and TV roles, including Dr. Neil Curtis on “Days of Our Lives” from 1974-’91. Gallison’s boisterous, commanding presence as Coach makes it clear he’s the puppeteer controlling the strings. He embodies everything one would imagine of a sporting mentor, from his balls-to-the-wall fix-alls to his contempt for feebleness. He’s the center of “logic” and “inspiration” for these fortysomething men, but there’s an underlying conundrum to his inspiration. Where he was once the center of praise from the town, “bringing it back from defeat,” 20 years later he seems more of a pathetic has-been on the verge of dying. Still, Gallison gives Coach moxie and dominating strength, reaming the “team” on loyalty when they begin to fall apart. While he preaches for them to “endure the pain” and forgive one another, it’s only counterintuitive when considering his agenda: to have a captive audience who will still respect and listen to him.
Dan Morris as George comes with bumbling action—or inaction, as the case may be. As the subpar mayor of the town, who only won 32 more votes than his drunken opponent, George faces re-election and campaign financial insecurity. His home life, too, seems to be falling apart, and his health is something to be desired. What Morris brings to George is a good-natured sense of sympathy—a man wanting to do right but struggling from emotional turmoil of many wrongdoings. Morris, always composed and absorbed by every acting role he envelops, continues in the same fashion in “That Championship Season.” Expectant to be unsatisfied and rightly furious during a few life-changing scenarios, in the end he remains stoic.
Lee Lowrimore makes James a “nurturer.” He takes care of George’s every need as a campaign manager, he cares for his alcoholic brother, he looks after his dying father, and his resentment for it all guides his life. Lowrimore plays a petulant, nagging, tattle-telling whiner with ease. He has deeper issues of overcoming self-pity for living a life of mediocrity. Lowrimore goes deep to pull helpfulness and helplessness out of his character. He owns the most vulnerability onstage.
James’ brother, Tom, played by Mike O’Neill, has the least amount of lines yet the most impact in revealing disdainful, sardonic apathy. O’Neill makes little impression in Act I, but in Act II, when his alcoholism comes full force, he reveals much of the play’s truth. He’s the only one to challenge Coach’s ethics and intentions. It comes with relief and solitude to see someone stand up to the bigger-than-life personality.
Another charismatic addition to the cast: Robin Dale Robertson as Phil, the smarmy, well-to-do businessman. From the onset of the play, Robertson makes his wise-guy role clear. He has the most foul of mouths, the most flashy of lifestyles and the most money—something he loves to talk about. Robertson is the guy we love to hate: self-aggrandizing, haughty, immoral. But he’s also one of the best to jab at the others and bring them all to a boiling point of tension.
The real success of the show comes from its team effort, where each man perfectly sparks on all pistons to fuel the others’ emotions. In fact, it runs so high, I commented to my theatre companion upon leaving about the stress in my shoulders: “I can’t imagine how they deflate after each performance—they must be wiped out!” The cast believably emits strenuous depths of affection. It pays off, too, as their teamwork molds a solid foray into mid-life crises, and the betrayals and loyalties that ebb and flow throughout life’s most sacred bonds. In the end, consistent to the plot, the cast proves there’s no “I” in team.
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