Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Play About Football, Trauma, and Heroes

“Life ain’t measured in years, it’s measured in yards!”  So cries Duncan Troy, retired NFL linebacker.  He sacked countless famous players in his day, and has the photos on his wall and the videotapes to prove it.  He plays them over and over and is planning to post them on You Tube.  In the hierarchy of males, he’s a pugnacious alpha.

In the opening of Patrick Link’s new play, Headstrong, Duncan Troy plays confident host to a stranger, Nick Merritt, in his living room cum trophy room, which is dominated by photographs of himself as a pro football player, and a liquor cabinet.  Merritt’s goal in Troy’s home becomes clear when Troy’s daughter Sylvia arrives.  Her ex-husband Ronnie Green was a pro running back who couldn’t run for long. He’d retired younger than Troy would have contemplated, and then his life fell apart.  Even before Troy’s daughter Sylvia divorced him, Ronnie had begun to spiral downward until he committed suicide just a few weeks before the play begins.
Ron Canada as Duncan Troy and Alexander Gemignani as Nick Merritt in the trophy room.  (c) 2012 Gerry Goodstein.

Sylvia doesn’t want to deal with the reality of her husband’s decline and death.  Her father’s judgment, voiced to Merritt, is condemnation of his son-in-law as weak.  As Ronnie’s legal widow, despite her characterization of him as her ex, Merritt (who is based on Chris Nowinski, a former professional wrestler who suffered brain damage during his professional career) needs Sylvia to sign authorization for Merritt and his associate Dr. Moses Odame (based on neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, who discovered the condition of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE) to analyze Ronnie’s brain, hoping to learn what damage may have occurred with repetitive injury in his years in pro ball.  Sylvia refuses for her own reasons, which are not her father’s, who eavesdrops and bullies to convince her to refuse consent.  

You see it in the papers far too often.  A retired ball player dies, perhaps by his own hand, perhaps willing his brain to research.  Concussions have been studied sufficiently to know the damage they do to athletes.  Ronnie didn’t have any concussions, but science wants to know more about professional athletes with similar symptoms.  Science wants Ronnie Green’s brain.

Patrick Link has crafted Headstrong so that different points of view on the dangers of contact sports are expressed with deep belief by different characters — including more than one desire by the same character — without resorting to cardboard cutouts spouting a thesis. To Troy, quality of life after sports is something women think about, although Troy uses ruder terms than “women” for Merritt’s concerns regarding potential brain damage.  Apparently Merritt’s masculinity is in question if he cares about life after football.

A lot of this play is about what is perceived as weakness, strength, and courage.  Troy sees heroes where Merritt sees athletes and victims.  Merritt’s own physical injuries are to him a sign of weakness that he would never admit to Troy.  Ronnie’s barely recognized physical injuries may have caused his depression and dementia that led to his grisly suicide.  Perhaps the position of Sylvia, widow and daughter of football players and mother of a young son, is a resolution that both men dread.  Sylvia Troy Green does not want her son to play football — whatever else she chooses to deny or admit, that choice speaks louder than words.

Headstrong is tightly written and makes its points in three scenes creating food for thought and conversation. Everyone in the audience was buzzing as we trailed out into the muggy night.  William Carden, Artistic Director of EST, directs Headstrong simply and succinctly, allowing the play and the characters to speak for themselves. A smart set by Jason Simms efficiently uses the tight space of the 2nd floor theatre at EST.  Video design by David Tennent drew us in without distracting as it showed the glory, pain, and danger of football.  Suzanne Chesney’s costume design was on the mark for each character, and sound by Jannie Bullard was subtle and effective.  As for the cast:

Ron Canada as Duncan Troy is tough, angry, and frightened all at once, in a fine performance.

Alexander Gemignani as Nick Merritt starts the play sure of his goals but so unsure of himself that he is whittled down by the end of the first scene with Troy, and totally uncertain in the second scene.  His excellent performance personifies the conflict between the desire to retain the unrestricted hitting football game (and other contact sports) while trying not to destroy its players. 

As Sylvia Troy Green, Nedra McClyde’s voice and face are expressive, sometimes sly, sometimes hiding the devastation of her loss. However, her body doesn’t altogether keep up with her characterization. The stresses that had to weigh on her don’t show below the neck.

Tim Cain as Dr. Moses Odame has charm, passion, and hope with science on his side, yet his words and delivery are rather uninspiring. 
Nedra McClyde as Sylvia and Alexander Gemignani as Nick (C) 2012 Gerry Goldstein.

Full disclosure:  I love theatre.  I do not love football.  I admire the attempt of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation ( to encourage plays about science and technology in our society.  The challenge has always been to make a good play.  Science is largely theoretical, and I think playwright Link did a good job presenting what has a lot of evidence, what hasn’t, and what is needed to confirm burgeoning theories of connections between repetitive if lesser hits that did not cause concussions, but may still contribute to brain injuries.  Making a well structured play that satisfies, from a purely theatrical point of view, is not so simple, however, as writing a sturdy and well-balanced thesis.

Although I found Headstrong compelling and intellectually effective, something is lacking in the play’s structure.  Perhaps it is that there’s no single protagonist. Troy, the alpha male, leads the scenes he’s in by brute force, but his only goal is to retain the status quo.  Sylvia is still taking care of everyone else.  Merritt had a goal, and he thought he’d failed; that he achieved it is not really his victory, but Sylvia’s.  And Dr. Moses gets what he wants by doing nothing.  
Gemignani as Merritt and Tim Cain as Dr. Moses Odame.

Link gives us information and choices through well developed characters. The questions raised are about a good deal more than sports.  Headstrong’s closing moments impart an enduring image, part visual, part aural, and filled with a vague unease… even fear.  

Presented by The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Project for New Plays on Science and Technology, the play runs through May 13 in an intimate space at EST.  Perhaps a slightly larger Off Broadway space could be next to reach a broader audience, although, despite its looming subject, the play isn’t yet big enough for a much larger space….

Finally, and this isn’t about the play as a play....  I just need to argue one point with Mr. Troy (or Mr. Link).  He insists that football players and other sports stars are our heroes.  That in our society, we don’t have monsters like Grendel (and that, my friends, is a crock), so we don’t have heroes like Beowulf.  Therefore we need substitute heroes, presently in the form of grown men — and some not finished growing — crashing their entire body weights into one another to stop a play or make a play, or sometimes trying to knock a person out of the game entirely (which, as a lowly female, I would consider cheating).  Heroes?  Our society has monsters.  And if these guys are our society’s heroes, they've missed the mark.  If they're heroes, why are we still fighting actual wars?

~ Molly Matera, signing off, hoping not to wake to news of yet another sports figure committing suicide.

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