The five men who gather for a reunion in Jason Miller's That Championship Season quickly reveal themselves as foul-mouthed, racist, whining, sexist, drunken, anti-Semitic, pathetic, backstabbing jerks. I wouldn't want to spend five minutes with any of them.
So why should anybody want to spend a couple hours listening to them talk (in a production that runs through April 2 at the Civic's Studio Theater)? Why pay good money to hear all about somebody else's shortcomings?
For one thing, Miller can be funny. One of the former jocks has devolved into a profiteering strip miner. When environmentalists criticize him, he's ready with his counterargument. "You can't kill a mountain," he whines. "Mountains grow back."
A second reason to watch this Pulitzer-winning play: We're liable to recognize ourselves among these has-beens. Maybe we're not betraying a friend who's running for mayor or sleeping with his wife, but we all have secret shames. Miller just heightens them for the stage, writes them a little bigger. There are pudgy middle-aged guys reliving their high school glory days, after all, in every dive bar in the country. Difference is, when it comes to settling old resentments, the guys in Miller's play have their weapons out. And they've been sharpening the edges.
Third, ol' Coach and four of the five starters off the 1952 Pennsylvania state championship basketball team reunite so they can ... achieve self-knowledge? Don't be naive -- about them or us. Because these five moral charlatans choose the same path many of us do. Theirs is a long night's journey into ... daylight? Illumination? Self-recognition? Miller has the sense to leave this quintet as self-deluded at the end of his play as at the beginning. They had their glory days; now their lives have sunk into the muck. Their solution is a common one: Just declare victory and get out. Rather than fix anything, they simply decide that they're still living up to some shining ideal, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Director Wes Deitrick corrals all this self-deception with assurance: tense pauses at the outset, the boys gathered 'round and facing the audience for some of Coach's old pep talks, some of the more melodramatic outbursts and confessions handled simply and honestly. Too often, however, he allows cast members to rely on pointed fingers and raised voices to indicate their rage.
As Tom the alcoholic, Dave Rideout has the drunken comedy down -- in fact, for a play that's high on the per capita liquor consumption, the entire cast does a pretty good job of wobbling without getting sloppy. But Rideout misses the dark, sarcastic bite of many of Tom's asides. Tom's the truth-teller -- he's the one who pierces the illusion that they all remain "champions" in their present lives -- and truth-telling like that requires more anger and more self-contempt.
Tracy Schornick plays James, the responsible one, with the foot-shuffling of a man who's always unsure of himself. But Schornick needs to stop shuffling his feet when his character, desperate for some respect, temporarily stands up to his false friends.
Brad Picard embodies the kind of self-satisfied rich kid we all knew in high school -- Daddy gave him everything, so he's confident everyone else should, too. Picard empties out this self-destructive womanizer's soul.
As the mayor, David Gigler is unobtrusive about being treated as an errand boy and doormat both by his pals, making the point quietly. Gigler, a round man, plays a reference to his character's formerly slim waist with just the right amount of self-deprecation.
The standout in a solid ensemble is Terry Sticka as Coach. Sticka is 20 years too young for the part yet somehow manages to overcome the handicap and nail the role. Deepening his voice to a growl, sagging his chest and thrusting his gut in the manner of an elderly man, he spouts threadbare maxims like "Never settle for anything less than success." Old coach, he hasn't changed a bit.
Neither have the other men in Miller's play. Lost on the dark side of Hoosiers, their nostalgia for that championship season is intense because, like many of us, they have a sneaking suspicion there aren't any more championships in their future.
Rather than work for change, it's easier just to conjure up memories of the glory days. Who cares if we're actually living by our ideals anymore? The trick is to keep your eye on the prize, even if it's only in the rearview.
Those were the days, back when I was stronger, smarter, happier. And I'll get back to doing all that again. I really will.
Publication date: 03/17/05