It’s frightening what a little pigskin will do to a man. Take Jack Henry, the victim of a football-crazed dad and a jealous admirer of his talented older brother, with nothing but hustle to recommend him — hustle that eventually rots into naked, murderous ambition. Former Houston Oiler Bo Eason’s entrancing meanderings on football and family in “Runt of the Litter” turn an overworked theatrical genre (the one-man show) into the canvas for a detailed miniature tragedy that’s somehow also of vast proportions — like a postage stamp by Edward Hopper.
Everything about “Runt of the Litter,” including the title, is designed to set off warning bells. There’s the unmistakable odor of autobiography, for one thing, and then there’s the corny Americana that seems to permeate the scene Eason sets. The monologue initially threatens to be just another play about inevitably disappointing your dad, perhaps with a touching reunion at the finish, perhaps with a lame tacked-on ending.
It doesn’t turn out that way, happily. Eason delivers his monologue from the locker room, next to his Oilers jersey, which presides over the first half of the show like a bomb. Things start off cute: Jack worships his father and brother; Jack’s mom delivers him a thick scouting report on every team he plays, listing his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. Even then, there’s a malignant undertow (Mom sends Jack x-rays illustrating the three screws in one player’s knee). But things stay light for the most part. Protestations of transcendent team unity and the love of the game abound.
“Runt” skips in and out of real time, and, while Jack’s stories about his father are already becoming disturbing, the surreal time lapses compound the strangeness. The most vividly disturbing part, though, comes when Jack stops talking altogether.
The scars on Eason’s knees are real — souvenirs of his time in the pros. So when he pauses to drive a needle full of medicinal cortisone deep below his kneecap, the weird mixture of pain and joy he’s been telling us about is suddenly no longer just sound in our ears. We can see evidence of it etched on his face and his legs.
The potency of these two dovetailing feelings gives Jack a high that becomes his only morality. In Eason’s hands, it makes his character something of a monster, but from Friday’s Major League baseball steroid-scandal headlines, it looks like he’s not alone.
Though they’re unlikely to express it on stage in these same eloquent terms, the conflict Jack both suffers and relishes must hold baseball players in equal thrall — this monster is real. There’s no pill-popping in “Runt of the Litter,” but Jack’s slow decline is no less excruciating. You can see the enticing, lethal end zone from miles away, but the view makes it all the more painful to watch.