by Cynthia Cooper
Presented by Venus Theatre at the Venus Theatre Play Shack
by Tim Treanor
The professional athlete, in his triumph and glory, generally has very little story in him. With rare exception, his protean gifts appear early, insulating him from pain, loss or even normal criticism. You and I, stumbling through childhood, receive our fair ration of humiliation – bad grades, romantic failure, chastisement for our sins – but to our athletically gifted brethren, life is a ride on a moving sidewalk. By the time adversity comes to him, he is so accustomed to success he barely recognizes it.
But: change the gender, dial the time back to before Title IX, and see what happens. In the first half of the twentieth century, we beheld our women athletes with as much fear and confusion as admiration. We forget this now in our admiration of Wie, Hamm, and the Williams sisters, but for much of our time we thought of women athletes in the same way Samuel Johnson thought about women ministers: like the dancing bear, the wonder is not how well they do it, but that they do it at all.
In How She Played the Game, a one-woman show playing at the Venus Theatre Play Shack, Cynthia Cooper does us a great favor by reminding us of six great women athletes of the recent past, and a greater favor by reminding us how we – men and women both – used to treat them. In a brief, graceful pastiche of their six lives, Cooper shows the relentless, indomitable human heart as it defeats the limitations both of society and of the body.
Four of these athletes are well known, even today. Althea Gibson (1927-2003) was the first African-American to play at Wimbledon. She won it (in 1956 and 1957) as well as the French and U.S. Opens. The incomparable Babe Didrikson (1911-56) was perhaps the best woman golfer ever, and was in addition a track and field world record-holder who also scored 106 points in a high school basketball game. Most people remember Sonja Henie (1912-69) as a movie actress, but she invented the concept of dancing on ice, and won three Olympic Medals for it. Gertrude Ederle (1906-2003) was the first woman to swim the English Channel. She was nineteen when she did it.
The other two athletes – the aristocratic squash champion and distance walker Eleonora Randolph Sears (1881-1968) and Gretel Bergmann, the Jewish high-jumper whose misfortune it was to live in Hitler’s Germany at the prime of her athletic prowess – provide the glue to Cooper’s story. The story of the ninety-two year old Bergmann (who now calls herself Margaret Lambert) is probably the most powerful, since her triumph was more spiritual than athletic. Stripped of her opportunity to compete in the 1936 Olympics, she is able to see events in a broader perspective. As for Sears, she resolves during the course of a 109-mile walk to write to other bold women athletes in the future, in order to encourage them in case they falter. These letters manage to yoke Cooper’s disparate stories together.
For Cooper’s play to work, the single actor playing all six roles must achieve great separation in her portrayals. On average, each character is on stage for only seven minutes and thirty seconds. In that extremely limited time the actor must immediately establish the character’s distinctive personality traits and – if the character is to step beyond cartoon dimensions – show her confronting, and resolving in a characteristic way, some important dilemma. To add to the challenge, Venus Theatre’s new storefront space offers little by way of complex lighting or sound, and so the actor must have considerable skill, and be at the top of her game.
I am delighted to report that Deborah Randall – better known as a director, writer, and organizer – is more than equal to the task. She inhabits these characters with great economy of movement, and gives each of them distinctions which go beyond each pitch-perfect dialect. Her Bergmann is wise and moving; her Sears is funny and inspiring; it is impossible not to cheer on her indomitable Gibson and Ederle. Even Heine – in this play, as in life, a bit of a cold fish – is made comprehensible. Only Didrikson comes off as less than a fully developed character, and this is less Randall’s fault, or Cooper’s, than it is Didrikson’s herself. Babe grew up so profoundly successful an athlete that she was never fully aware of her limitations, including the limitation of mortality.
How did they play the game? They played it very well. So do Randall and Cooper, and they make the evening worth the while.
How She Played the Game runs through October 7 at the Venus Theatre Play Shack, 21 C Street, Laurel, MD, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3. October 7th‘s presentation will be at 3. Tickets are $10 and available at http://www.venustheatre.org/.