Shooting for the Stars
May 14, 15
THERE ARE A considerable number of males in this country who find sports much more than enjoyable and relaxing games. These men view success in sports as a reflection of a man's worth, and among their heroes are legendary fanatics like Knute Rockne and Vince Lombardi.
A natural corollary to this attitude towards sports is the notion that life itself is the biggest sport of all. Ironically, while many of those who hold this view may even have been champions in some game of sports, more often than not they have never been champions in the game of life.
In That Championship Season Jason Miller depicts five such men, isolating a moment in their lives when they are forced to face their advancing age, their unrequited dreams, and their many limitations. Four former high school basketball players and their coach have gathered together to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their championship season. Each of the men is to some degree unsatisfied with his life. The root of their common dissatisfaction lies in the fact that that high school championship season was the high point of their lives. Through the years they have never been able to equal the glory of their youthful triumph. They have, in fact, fallen into mediocrity. One of the players, now a timid and bitterly self-pitying junior high school principal, mentions that his son asked him to define mediocrity. He notes that mediocre means "of low excellence," and he claims that his son asked simply because the boy sees his father as the epitome of mediocrity, the epitome of low excellence.
George Sikowski, the slow-thinking, dull-minded mayor of the town, is up for re-election. His position is shaky at best, and he desperately needs the financial support of his former teammate Phil Romano, a boorish but successful businessman. The problem is that Phil wants to support George's opponent Sharmen, ne Sharmawitz. To complicate matters even more, Phil has been sleeping with George's wife. Naturally, hostilities flare up when James takes it upon himself to enlighten George.
But the tension is quickly smoothed over, and the play ends poignantly as the coach plays a recording of the championship game. As the winning shot is described, the men break into their old school fight song--they are inextricably tied together by the single moment of glory in their lives. They must stick together. Only through a collective, self-deceptive retreat into the past can these men escape the specter of mediocrity. And they cling desperately to the Coach's exhortation--"Never forget that, never!"--hoping without really believing it that their success in a game of basketball has carried over into the game of life.
The Eliot House Drama Society production of That Championship Season is a powerful one despite the script's shortcomings--Miller's dialogue often seems slightly lacking in freshness, as lines tend to repeat themselves. The set, designed by Lee Dunholter, provides a remarkably realistic backdrop for the action, establishing an appropriately working class, slightly seedy atmosphere.
The play requires intense ensemble performance, and the actors are generally able to provide it. David J. Anderson portrays convincingly the stupidly credulous George Sikowski, a tragically affecting figure who is foiled not by a lack of ambition but by a lack of brain power. Anderson and Philip Weiss (who plays Phil Romano) provide some of the play's most gripping moments in a scene where George, learning of his wife's infidelity, threatens to shoot Phil. Weiss exudes the loudly aggressive yet slightly nervous air of a threatened businessman. Although his flailing arms and gangling walk detract somewhat from the effectiveness of his performance, Weiss's acting is good enough to weather his troubles afoot.
Kevin Reilly and John Harnes are also impressive in their roles as James Daley, the principal who is old and tired far beyond his years, and his alcoholic brother Tom. Harnes mercifully avoids stereotypical drunken mannerisms in his characterization, subtly evoking an image of failure as he hides behind the bottle. Unlike the others, Tom Daley has fallen past mediocrity into outright failure--he alone harbors no illusions of glory in either the past or present. Cynically resigned to his failure, Tom suggests that only by injuring the star of the opposing team did their school win the championship.
The Coach denies this suggestion most vigorously. He spouts inspirational rhetoric, desperately trying to hold "his boys" together; he, more than any of his boys, must maintain the deceit that a single athletic championship was enough to make a whole life worthwhile. When he declares that "Life is a game and I'm proud to say that I played it with the best," he is not really talking about life, but about a single game of basketball played twenty years ago that has sustained his entire existence. The coach is a throwback from a past era where men were men and Reds were Commies. His hero is Joe McCarthy, and he believes the revelation that Sharmen's grandfather was a Communist will insure George's re-election. Unfortunately for the production, Lou Rice as the Coach lacks the mature strength necessary for the part. He is just one of the boys, rather than the tough-guy, it-takes-hate-to-win elder and leader of his boys.
Like so many other American plays, That Championship Season is ultimately about the failure to achieve the American dream of success and glory. Its characters are ambitious men who have been unable to fulfill their ambitions. Limited by their meager talents and by their parochial outlook, they are trapped, branded with the label of mediocrity; and in our society, such a designation is almost worse than total failure. The Eliot House Drama Society production compellingly conveys the pathos of this particularly American tragedy.