Review: ‘National Pastime’

Scripter Bryan Harnetiaux has fashioned a reverential, overly detailed biodrama focusing on the breaking of the color barrier in professional baseball. While the abundance of facts concerning the life and career of Jackie Robinson (Jed Reynolds) overwhelms the storyline, helmer James Reynolds manages to guide a superb ensemble through the trivia.

Scripter Bryan Harnetiaux has fashioned a reverential, overly detailed biodrama focusing on the breaking of the color barrier in professional baseball. While the abundance of facts concerning the life and career of Jackie Robinson (Jed Reynolds) overwhelms the storyline, helmer James Reynolds manages to guide a superb ensemble through the trivia, bringing to vivid life not only the heroic struggle of a young athlete, but that of his mentor as well, the baseball visionary Branch Rickey (Frank Ashmore).

The core of Harnetiaux’s text is the scene ending the first act that re-creates the 1946 meeting/confrontation between crusty but wily Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Rickey and an emotionally volatile 25-year-old Robinson, who has become a star with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs. Ashmore masterfully embodies the persona of this colorful figure as Rickey overwhelms Robinson with the historic significance and potentially harrowing consequences of being the first black man to play Major League ball.

Ashmore is particularly riveting as he role-plays through myriad examples of bigotry, both hateful and comical, that Robinson is being asked to stoically endure to make this effort work. Reynolds exudes the sinewy athleticism of Robinson and is quite believable in communicating his ambivalence and uncertainty that he will be able to live up to the responsibility thrust upon him.

Unfortunately, Harnetiaux has not met a fact he can’t use. Utilizing the characters of African-American columnist Wendell Smith (Ted Lange) and Dodger radio announcer Red Barber (Vaughn Armstrong) as principal narrators, the scripter has surrounded this landmark Rickey/Robinson meeting with enough biographical data for two plays, beginning with the trek made by Mallie Robinson (vividly portrayed by Luise Heath) from the Deep South to Pasadena in the 1920s to find a better life for her and her children after she was deserted by her sharecropper husband.

Young Jackie Robinson’s exploits are chronicled from the playground through high school, Pasadena City College, UCLA and into the Army during WWII when he was court marshaled for insubordination, following an incident with a white bus driver. Running parallel to the Robinson saga is a survey of Rickey’s career in baseball, from his days as a player and then a manager in St. Louis to his move to Brooklyn, putting him and Robinson on an eventual collision course.

This casual journey through the Robinson/Rickey timeline could utilize some judicious trimming. But Jackie’s courtship and eventual marriage to college sweetheart Rachel is played out with endearing tenderness, principally due to Denise Boutte’s magnetic portrayal of Rachel. One comedic highlight of the production is Robinson’s first day with the Monarchs, when he is forced to endure the good-natured hijinks of Satchel Paige (Lamont Thompson) and clownish catcher Mule (Ken Sagoes).

Harnetiaux devotes significant time to the foursome of Rickey, his wife Jane (Sarah Lilly), Red Barber and his wife Lylah (Connie Ventress). Though not particularly relevant to the dramatic throughline, the humor-filled rapport they exude makes it quite believable these people have been friends for decades.

The many locales depicted in “National Pastime” fit quite nicely on Victoria Profitt’s impressionistic, all-purpose setting. The production is also enhanced by the evocative lights of Carol Doehring and the period-perfect costumes of Lois Tedrow.

National Pastime

Fremont Centre Theater; 78 seats; $20 top

Production

A Fremont Centre Theater, in association with James & Lissa Reynolds, presentation of a play in two acts by Bryan Harnetiaux, directed by James Reynolds.

Creative

Sets, Victoria Profitt; lights, Carol Doehring; sound, Katie Dunn; costumes, Lois Tedrow. Opened and reviewed March 19, 2005; runs until April 24. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast

Jackie Robinson - Jed Reynolds Branch Rickey - Frank Ashmore Red Barber - Vaughn Armstrong Wendell Smith - Ted Lange Mallie Robinson - Luise Heath Rachel Isum Robinson - Denise Boutte Sarah Lilly - Jane Rickey Lylah Barber - Connie Ventress
Ensemble: Dan Payne, Lamont Thompson, Ken Sagoes, Todd Cattell, Travis Johns, Bryan West.

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