Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan once said, “One of the beautiful things about baseball is that every once in a while you come into a situation where you want to, and where you have to, reach down and prove something.” As seen in Bang the Drum Slowly, two friends prove loyalty has no price-tag and being alive is “quite a great thing at that.”
Now playing at the American Century Theater, the stage adaptation of Mark Harris’ novel should please fans of the book and those who remember the 1973 film version. Eric Simonson’s dramatization of Bang the Drum Slowly, like its predecessors, focuses on a transcendent friendship among 1950s baseball players. If you don’t know a bunt from a fly-ball or a run from an out, fear not. There is nostalgia for the boys of summer but baseball is merely the vehicle which helps deliver a story about the power of the human spirit.
It is easy to be won over by the central performances of Evan Crump and Richie Montgomery as Henry Wiggen and Bruce Pearson, team mates on the fictional New York Mammoths baseball team, circa 1956. The whippet-thin Crump, as Wiggen, is a quietly confident narrator and resident wit. Montgomery, by contrast, is an open book as the down-home, Southern galoot Pearson. Together, their onstage chemistry captures the camaraderie that grows into a deep friendship between Henry and Bruce forged by a life-altering secret and their team’s race for the pennant.
Bruce, the friendly but simple-minded catcher for the Mammoths, is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. Henry, who goes by “Author,” is the team’s star pitcher who sells insurance in the off-season – most of his customers are ball players. Bruce trusts “Author” (or “Arthur,” as he calls him) with the truth of his fatal condition. “I’m doom-ed, Arthur.” Once they head into the baseball season, Wiggen finds dignity and purpose protecting Pearson from the Mammoths’ tough management and his gold-digging girlfriend, even as Bruce’s lymphoma takes its toll. Author renegotiates his own contract with the Mammoths so it ties his job with Bruce’s; if one is traded, so is the other one. Wiggen’s business acumen serves a higher purpose, however. He wants Bruce to have the best year he can possibly have, since it will be his last.
The 200-plus page novel is condensed into a compact two hour running time that keeps a sharp focus on Bruce and Author’s journey from spring training to the play-offs. There are glimpses of the women in their lives: Wiggen’s pregnant wife Holly (Mary Beth Luckenbaugh), a picture of mid-fifties domestic bliss; and Bruce’s lady friend, Katie (Lizzi Albert), a woman of questionable morals, who has her eye on the insurance pay-out when he dies.
Adding color to the clubhouse scenes, veteran actor Craig Miller reaches new heights of crusty irascibility as baseball manager, Dutch Schnell. “He was a million dollar promise worth two cents on delivery,” Dutch says about Bruce’s skill as a catcher. Bringing a handgun into the locker room, one of the players tells Schnell not to worry, he’s always careful. Dutch replies, “That’s what everybody says. That’s why the hospital’s full of babies.”
Bang the Drum Slowly
Closes February 1, 2014
American Century Theater at
Gunston Arts Center
2700 S. Lang Street
2 hours with 1 intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
As orchestrated by director Ellen Dempsey, scenes blend seamlessly into each other on the baseball diamond-inspired set design by Brandon Guilliams. Dempsey’s staging is enhanced by the subtle lighting and atmospheric sound design, by Pete Caress and Ed Moser respectively. The mid-1950s era is captured in the period costumes and uniforms by designer Marilyn Johnson, and Kevin Laughon’s props, including vintage-looking baseball bats, rotary phones and much more.
As his life is being whittled away by Hodgkin’s disease, Bruce Pearson reaches down and proves something to himself, as he says, “being alive, ain’t it quite a grand thing at that?”
Indeed it is. Bang the Drum Slowly at American Century Theater is a grand thing, too. And having a steadfast friend along for the ride is a treasured commodity, in baseball and in life.
Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris and adapted for the stage by Eric Simonson. Directed by Ellen Dempsey. Featuring Evan Crump, Richie Montgomery, Craig Miller, with Bru Ajueyitsi, Lizzie Albert, Ric Anderson, Heather Benjamin, Joe Feldman, Mary Beth Luckenbaugh, Kyle Lynch, Brandon Mitchell, Robby Priego, Jorge Silva, Arturo Tolentino, and John Tweel. Stage Manager is Lindsey E. Moore. Set design by Brandon Guilliams, Lighting design by Pete Caress, Costume design by Marilyn Johnson, Props design by Kevin Laughon, Sound design by Ed Moser who also serves as producer. Produced by the American Century Theater. Reviewed by Jeff Walker.