by Michael Bowen
For Lee Blessing's unconventional, dream-like biography of Ty Cobb (at Interplayers through Feb. 15), Director Guy Barile has chosen to create a total environment. Billboards and posters on the wall mimic the advertising you'd find on the outfield wall at any ballpark. A vendor, dressed in knickers and flat cap, strolls up into the "grandstand" and hawks Coca-Colas (in bottles!). John Hofland's set presents cut-out "fans" in bleachers behind a wire backstop; a dugout with bat rack; twin scoreboards with faded, chalked-in numerals; and, best of all, a diminutive infield, complete with grit on the bases and a rosin bag on the pitcher's mound.
Barile, a Chicagoan and therefore a disillusioned Cubbies fan, knows his baseball, and it shows. He began rehearsals with extensive batting and throwing drills; he consulted by phone with playwright Lee Blessing, another big baseball fan. This Spokane production is one of the few versions of this 1989 play with its own miniature baseball diamond.
The first act -- another of Barile's innovations is to split this long one-act into a two-part play -- will end with the great Ty Cobb himself rounding the bases with gusto -- taunting pitchers, fooling shortstops and lacerating catchers (while stealing home with his trademark razor-sharp spikes). For it is Blessing's conceit in his Cobb bio-drama that three distinct incarnations of the Hall of Famer appear onstage simultaneously, arguing among themselves: the Georgia Peach, age 19 (Rick Steadman); Ty, in his 40s (David Seitz); and Mr. Cobb, past 70 and facing death (Howard Elfman).
Compared to other major leaguers of his era, Cobb had more hits, more runs and more self-hatred. Base paths were his personal warpaths. The Georgia Peach was so rotten that he enjoyed punching out his adversaries (and teammates), then lying about it. He gave new meaning to the term "hit and run play."
Back in 1994, Ron Shelton's film of the same name (but based not on Blessing's play but on sportswriter Al Stump's biography of Cobb) featured a fearsome and larger-than-life performance by Tommy Lee Jones. But the movie made the mistake of emphasizing Cobb's repugnance -- alcoholic, racist, wife-beater, sadist, bully, self-aggrandizer, and even (probably) murderer -- without showing us that the man had any redeeming qualities.
Blessing, on the other hand, provides a more rounded character -- and Barile's new-to-Spokane talent capitalizes. All the actors except Seitz are making their Interplayers debut -- and, after impressive turns in Three Days of Rain and in God's Man in Texas, this is only Seitz's third local appearance. In particular, as Oscar Charleston -- a player just as feisty and good as Cobb but relegated to the obscurity of the Negro League -- Cecil Luellen has the dignity, the resonant voice and athleticism to provide a worthy foil to all three incarnations of Cobb.
As the elder statesman, Howard Elfman plays the old man too much for humor. It's funny -- the first few times -- when he tries to mediate squabbles between the Peach and Ty. The dying Cobb, more than anything, is into denial, and he blatantly rearranges memories to suit himself. But it has a pitiful dimension as well, and Elfman misses that note. In the end, we miss his bitterness and disbelief that the people loved Babe Ruth better.
It would be a shame to shy away from Cobb because you don't much care for sports. Racial injustice, greed, lust for fame, self-hatred, unprocessed grief, the futility of egoism, the sadness of a man past his prime and knowing it: Cobb is about more than a game played by boys.
A undeniably great athlete who was also certifiably a jerk, Ty Cobb was the Pete Rose of the 1920s. His story inflames a similar debate: Should we allow a man of undeniable on-field talent -- but who is also deeply flawed, even disreputable -- into our pantheon of heroes? Is baseball sequestered in some idyllic world, or is it part of our world?
For Cobb, the game was better left in a vacuum. He is never happier, he tells us, than when off on a hunting trip, alone, unencumbered by family or teammates: "Baseball was a team game. That was its only flaw." His only connection to the world of baseball fans, moreover, was characteristically violent: Referring to the first item ever placed in the hall at Cooperstown, his famously sharpened cleats, Ty drives home that "I've put my spikes somewhere else, too. In you. In every one of you."
The Interplayers production of Cobb leaves its marks as well. And they're more than just flesh wounds.