Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Ballplayer"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Larry Stark


Written and Directed by Harvey Soolman

Technical Manager Ken Porter
Production Assistant/House Manager Paula Malady
Production Assistant Laura Bourgeois
Stage Manager Matt Breton

Carl..........Bob DeLibero
Linda.......Francine Davis
Jenny....Jennifer Markholm
Mark.......Michael Avellar
Dr. Grimshaw.....Rob Astyk
Coach Johnson....Jim Moran

Until I saw Harvey Soolman's play "Ballplayer" I didn't know that the nine teams of The Boston Park League, at 75, constitute America's oldest "amateur league". It's described (My Words!) as a sort of intermediary between sand-lot and farm-team, with men who couldn't stay in professional leagues playing with hot young college-age kids just coming up. The play is a relentless examination of obsession, with a hero still unwilling to give up playing, even with a back needing surgery and a college-freshman son playing short-stop on the team for the very first time. The result is a frustated wife at the end of Her rope, and a bubbling family crisis of classic proportions. Soolman may be a better playwright than a director, but he has constructed believable characters and assembled an excellent cast, so the show holds attention right up to a vague, quick, uncertain finish. But, how many Boston playwrights can boast a full-length play this well-crafted?

Bob DeLibero and Francine Davis have most of the lines here. It becomes apparent that the wife, having run a home and raised two kids through high-school, is unwillingly facing an empty nest and a seat behind home plate and no real say in family decisions. But her husband is never a monster --- he's merely too busy to notice. Their argument must have been simmering under the surface for years, and it's played out in different ways and levels because this ageing ballplayer simply doesn' want to listen.

As their son, Michael Avellar is broodingly, silently avoiding everything until a final confrontation after their first game together, when he must confess that, for him, the every-minute pressure of actually Playing ball simply isn't fun for him. It's Jennifer Makholm as an understanding daughter who tries to smooth the course of married love despite her youth and the seriousness of the conflict. These two make their few scenes shine, and serve to demonstrate that despite their problems, this is a close, loving family.

In the second act, a dream ... no a Nightmare sequence brings the stern doctor (Rob Astyk) and then dad's acid high-school coach into play. They personify dad's worst fears: one that any kind of playing career is at an end, the other that he never really had any talent for the game in the first place. As played, these confrontations seem quite realistic and cool, despite the turmoil in this poor man's mind. As a punctuation to the dream, hearing a game in progress behind it, the man kicks a hole in a fence to join it --- a beautiful metaphor for the entire play.

At one point, when his daughter asks "What did Your father dream you'd become, dad?" he contemptuously snarls "An accountant! Just like he was!" and she gaily responds, "But, Dad, you ARE an accountant!" That's the closest this obsessed man comes to compromising with reality. With a budding career cut short by injury, he lowered his sights to The Boston Park League, but never even thought of a life without the game. As the finally exploding wife, Davis insists she feels so alone she might just as well leave him and pursue her own dream of working in the arts. His obsession is that all-encompassing. And obviously Red Sox fans and Fenway wives will see Soolman's ballplayer as only a slightly exaggerated portrait --- a sort of Willy Loman with a bat clenched fiercely in his desperate, ageing hands.

Now for the disclaimer: During one world-series back in my high-school days someone eagerly asked "So, who ya rootin' for?" to which I replied "Navy!" It is a credit to Harvey Soolman and his fine actors that I found "Ballplayer" a portrait of someone I could never be, but certainly understood.


"Ballplayer" (24 April - 4 May)
Charlestown Working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill Street, CHARLESTOWN MA

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