Among all of the sports, boxing consistently produces the most gripping stories. Rod Serling’s portrayal of one battered gladiator of the ring, Requiem for a Heavyweight, was originally written for live production on “Playhouse 90” in 1956 and became one of the most acclaimed works of the era. If you see the superlative production by the Heritage-O’Neill Theatre Company, you will understand why.
Harlan “Mountain” McClintock (Sean Coe) is a proud heavyweight at the end of his career. A simple man from the hills of Tennessee, he was once the number five heavyweight and in 111 fights he never took a dive. The play opens with a doctor examining a badly beaten McClintock. The toll of 14 years of prize fighting has caused so much damage that that another fight could blind or even kill him. Faced with the loss of his boxing license, McClintock must choose a new direction in his life.
McClintock’s corrupt manager Maish (Frank Vince) is in hock to a gangster because he bet McClintock would not last four rounds. He needed the money to buy the contract of a new fighter now that McClintock is over the hill. Maish’s girlfriend, a prostitute played with alluring charm by Hillary Kacser, sums their two professions by saying “We both sell it by the pound.”
Maish, who is willing to lie to McClintock to keep him morally indebted and committed to him long enough to pay off his $3,000 debt, has some twisted integrity and love for McClintock. He arranges for him to become a fake pro wrestler in a silly frontier costume. Even knowing that becoming such a clown would extract a heavy toll on McClintock’s soul, the conflicted manager genuinely seems to believe he’s doing the right thing.
Fighting Maish for McClintock’s future is Grace Miller (Amy Rauch), a devoted employment counselor who feels a growing compassion for this sweet man. She tries to overcome McClintock’s pessimism (“Big dummy like me, what kind of job can I get?”) and persuade him that he needs to try something different to build a new life.
The entire cast is top notch. While McClintock is the one role that is difficult to make believable, Coe’s straightforward portrayal of the likeable lug steadily grows on you. Amy Rauch gives Grace a perfectly balanced combination of determination and empathy. As for Frank Vince’s performance of the conflicted Maish, it is one of the finest performances this reviewer has seen this year.
The same quality is found in the supporting cast members who relish the distinctive street dialogue that made Serling an acclaimed television writer long before “The Twilight Zone” era. Most notably, Dexter Hamlett is a standout who infuses real emotion into his portrayal of Army, McClintock’s loyal trainer and cut man and Robert Christie gives a sharp portrayal of Leo Loomis, a contrasting and even lower class manager who is as loud and brash as his plaid sports jacket.
The different sets are deliberately bland, consisting mostly of plain wooden furniture. Borrowing from the conventions of television filming, the stage consists of three fixed sets and one swing area which are all visible to the audience. While the program explains that it was done in part for functional reasons, it has additional resonance in showing the limited world that McClintock inhabits. He spends most of his time in a hotel room, a locker room, and a seedy bar aptly named“The Graveyard.”populated with aspiring and former boxers.
Requiem for a Heavyweight is distinctively rooted in a specific world and era, one that can be viewed with nostalgia by fans of the “sweet science” who miss an era in which there were only eight world champions at a time. Yet the story is timeless in its portrayal of a man at a crossroads in his life who must find his future while being pulled in different directions. It’s a profound story of personal self-examination and growth and director Karey Faulkner gives it an honest and moving staging.
While the Metro area has a wonderful diversity of theatre, it would be a shame if this outstanding production gets lost in the crowd. On opening night, a woman stood at intermission, surveyed the audience which barely outnumbered the cast, and said aloud “They deserve better.” This reviewer agrees whole-heartedly.
Requiem for a Heavyweight
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Karey Faulkner
Produced by The Heritage-O’Neill Theatre Company
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 2 hrs 15 min with one intermission