That Championship Season

Winning the Championship

By Daedalus Howell

EARLY THEATERGOING audiences knew that there was nothing finer than talking back to the stage–specifically in the form of boos and hisses at black-clad evildoers. Audiences will probably experience a similar compulsion with Main Street Theatre’s marvelous production of playwright Jason Miller’s That Championship Season–a Pulitzer Prize-winning indictment of irascibly bigoted, white, suburban males circa 1972. However, to their progressive chagrin, Sonoma County audiences may find that their hissing is actually laughter stifled behind clenched teeth.

An expeditious trek into the claustrophobically narrow minds of five men in a small Pennsylvania town, That Championship Season explores and condemns their sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, and ecological irresponsibility in three outrageously comic acts expertly drawn by Miller and conveyed to the stage by adroit director Scott Phillips.

Coach, a retired high school basketball drillmaster (poignantly deployed by MST artistic director Jim dePriest) is the pivotal character in a reunion comprised of former championship team members 20 years after graduation. In attendance are George Sikowski, now the incompetent town mayor on a re-election bid (a well-hewn and devilish portrayal by Tim Hayes); Tom Daley, a cheeky and irreverent alcoholic (played to the hilt by the hilarious Xavier Lavoipierre); his ambitious turncoat older brother James Daley, a junior high school principal (an impressive Gerald Haston); and strip-mining magnate Phil Romano (a casting windfall in Jonathan Kesser).

The party begins with benign backslapping and nostalgic riffs on days past, but soon degenerates into a morass of backbiting and backstabbing in equal turns as the characters get more and more intoxicated. (Coach commands, “Get him a drink!” whenever one of his flock falls down the stairs, or is afflicted by either death threats or conscience amid the gun rack, overstuffed chairs, and trophies of the set.) In tandem with Miller’s script, Phillips palpably ups the ante with each successive act, activating his players with a verve seldom seen on local stages.

But beware: the number of ethnic slurs and four-letter words in this play make Quentin Tarantino look like a blushing baby, Lenny Bruce an embryo. The expletives are necessary, however, as they are the broad strokes of Miller’s damning portrait–though sitting on tacks may be more comfortable.

DePriest’s Coach is an indefatigable crank, wholly unaware of his social impropriety and the poisonous aftereffect it has yielded in his cadre of protégés. This role, both gross and hilarious, is as challenging as they come, and dePriest’s craft, faculty, and grace as a performer prevail.

Though Lavoipierre’s younger Daley is essentially a brazen jerk-off, the actor invests him with a peculiar humanity and comic nuance that renders him likable (forgivable?) despite his idiocy. Lavoipierre’s displays consummate subtlety when his character derisively intones, “Whoop, whoop,” referring to whooping cranes, a species as threatened with extinction as is this contemptible breed of man.

Haston’s Daley, the school principal, is a skillfully devised concoction of timidity and raw enterprise; both acrid and pitiable, he displays a feat of emotional control, the perfect Judas kiss-ass to Hayes’ spiritually decrepit mayor. As the mayor sustains increasing amounts of psychological wounding, Hayes deftly shows the man’s plight with increasing layers of sadness.

Kesser’s jocose Romano is a comic highlight of the play, if not only for the actor’s ample talent, then for his ample collar (costumer Julia Hunstein Kwitchoff superbly garbs the players in fashions endemic in the ’70s). Clad in a polyester leisure suit, bragging toxically, and displaying an oily libido, Kesser gives a performance that far exceeds its visual comedy as he creates a three-dimensional personality both engaging and alarming. You will remember this man; he is your uncle.

Main Street’s That Champion Season is combustible, must-see seriocomic fare that clearly draws the boundaries, then blindly hopscotches all over them. If audiences did bite their tongues every time they laughed at an off-color gag, they would exit bloodied and necessarily speechless. Just remember you are to laugh at the characters, not with them.

That Championship Season plays Thursdays-Sundays through April 11 at Main Street Theatre. Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; March 22 at 2 p.m., and other Sundays at 7 p.m. 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. Tickets are $12. 823-0177.

From the March 19-25, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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