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Play Ball!


Tue, Jun 6th, 2000
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Monday, May 29, 2000

Outside the old St. Mane Theatre in downtown Lanes-boro, the sweet strains of the Count Baise and Duke Ellington orchestras float through the warm evening air. Even before entering the theatre, you know you are about to be taken back to another time and another place.

The time is the postwar 1940ís, when the USA was a sharply divided country, deeply segregated along ra-cial lines. White America had its Major League Baseball and Black America had what was then called the Negro Leagues. This is the setting for the Commonweal Theatreís newest play, Most Valuable Player.

It was Jackie Robinson who finally broke the color barrier in professional baseball and in his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers played so superbly, in spite of constant harassment, taunts and even death threats, that he was named Rookie of the Year. The play unfolds as a series of snapshots and flashbacks that cover the gamut of Robinsonís career; from his California childhood to the end of the 19 season, when he won the Most Valuable Player Award in the National League.

Guiesseppe Jones, a New York actor making his first appearance on the Lanesboro stage, plays the leading role of Jackie Robinson. Jones quickly establishes himself as a likeable guy weíre going to be pulling for. He plays Jackie with just the right blend of defi-ance and grace. Wherever Jackie goes from the sandlot ballfields of his childhood to the big league stadiums of the 1940ís, hostility and hate are there to greet him. When Jackie gets called up to the Dodgers, some of his fellow teammates start a petition to keep him off the team. Rival ballplayers and racist fans jeer and mock him unmercifully. For strength Jackie repeats the mantra, the quiet affirmation, that his older brother gave him: "Iím a Robinson and Rob-insonís donít give up".

The four other actors who make up the cast, all newcomers to the Commonweal Stage, turn in some fine solid performances. Nicholas Ozment is the far-sighted progressive baseball owner, Branch Rickey who recruits Robinson. Ozment nurtures both Robinsonís talent and fighting spirit with compassion and understanding.

Torsten Hillhouse plays PeeWee Reese, Robinsonís buddy and double-play partner, with verve and gusto. Mark Baer is Jackieís nemesis, an opposing pitcher who is a bigoted redneck without shame. And then thereís June Christy Burch, playing a BBC journalist who is a bit befuddled by the complicated game of American baseball.

These are just the headline roles, for all four actors play several other smaller parts, giving each one of them a chance to show the di-mensions of their craft.

Commonweal veteran Kristin Underwood, who this past winter played the leading role in Ibsenís Lady from the Sea directs Most Valuable Player. She told the Journal that her first professional job fifteen years ago was in a production of Most Valuable Player. "Although the play was created primarily for young audiences," Underwood said, "it has toured worldwide to audiences of all ages and has a powerful message for anyone, anywhere."

Underwood went on to say that she isnít sure why the Jackie Robinson story speaks so powerfully to her, as she hasnít ever experienced the overt prejudice that Robinson did. "I crumble when I think that one person might not like me," she said. "How could anyone stand a stadium full of fans spewing hate, and not only stand it but excel? It's almost more than I can imagine. I think this play reminds us of the real meaning of courage and strength."

Most Valuable Player will play Tuesdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through September 3.

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