review: the sweetest swing in baseball

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The Sweetest Swing in Baseball

By Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Nathaniel Swift
An Eclipse Theatre Company production
At Victory Gardens Theater
2257 N. Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL

Running time 2 hours with 1 intermission

Through April 23, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 19, 2006

Midwest Premiere of Gilman Gem Glows

Rebecca Gilman’s “The Sweetest Swing in Baseball” received it inaugural production in London in March 2004 and its U.S. premiere in San Francisco in early 2005.  Chicago should celebrate the U.S. Midwest premiere production by Eclipse Theatre Company currently playing at the Victory Gardens Theater.  This first of three planned Gilman pieces to be produced at Eclipse this year is a delight and gets the series off to a grand start.  This production provides a visual, textual, tonal journey of a contemporary artist finding her voice, with a little help from her friends.

The play follows the fortunes of Dana (Janelle Snow), a painter who has achieved sudden fame and who loses faith in herself in the process.  What should be an opportunity for celebration and adulation (her first gallery opening) becomes for her an unbearable challenge to her self esteem.  The theme of the challenge of living as an artist in contemporary society is the dramatic obstacle the play confronts, and various forms of play including baseball and art itself offer some metaphors.   What happens when what was fun becomes the job and external and internal expectations are imposed?  What we spend our time contemplating with Dana and the people in her life is whether the personal and artistic challenges she perceives are real or imagined, and whether she will find the strength, the “voice”, to take them on.

In the play’s early scenes, Dana worries that her boyfriend is going to leave her; worries about what the critics are saying; worries that her works aren’t selling; worries about whether the two female dealers showing and selling her art like her work.  Finally, Dana attempts to commit suicide (between scenes as it were, we meet up with her with bandaged wrists after the fact), and ends up at a psychiatric facility.  The balance of the play is composed of Dana’s growing confidence in her self and her art, through the persona of baseball player Darryl Strawberry (introduced to Dana through his memoir about his challenges with drugs as inpatient distraction reading and through the “coaching” of her male friends in the facility on the details of Strawberry’s baseball career), and through the perhaps kitschy, perhaps inspired art Dana begins to create.  Whatever else Dana is at the end of the play, through her adopted role as Strawberry, through her new art, through her new voice, she is a stronger and wiser human being.

The four actors who join Ms. Snow in her journey each play two characters, deftly written and expertly acted, providing a range of complementary influences, provocations, opportunities for Dana to find her own “voice”.  Gary Simmers is Roy (the boyfriend) and Gary (the artistic fellow patient with a homicidal fascination with a TV news anchor).  Frances Wilkerson is Erica (the junior art dealer/friend who represents Dana’s work) and Dr. Stanton (the senior psychiatrist at the inpatient facility).  Kerry Richlan is Rhonda (the senior and most obsequious art dealer) and Dr. Gilbert (the junior psychiatrist whose own artistic hopes as a dancer had been thwarted because, as she says at one point simply and without rancor “I wasn’t good enough”, and who offers to Dana and to the audience a review of Dana’s original exhibit which suggests that it might not have been the catastrophe that Dana perceived).  Finally, Kevin Scott is Brian (a young more confident artist in the first act, who fuels Dana’s insecurities) and Michael (the sympathetic recovering alcoholic who supports Dana’s new artistic choices and supports her ruse to impersonate ballplayer Strawberry, initially as a strategy to secure insurance coverage for a continued hospital stay, but which becomes perhaps much more).  The balance among the ensemble is exquisite.

The play is textually and visually in a purple mood; in a mellow tone.  Early on, Erica the junior art dealer, comments on this color’s prominence in Dana’s new paintings.  For this reviewer, this reflection becomes an emotional and physical color scheme for the entire play, beautifully evoked by the design team : Mike Winkelman (scenic designer) creates a geometric and suggestive “negative space”; Chris Corwin (lighting designer) paints the canvas in a purple haze with occasion effective use of lighting effects suggesting windows and changes of scene; Joel Ebarb (costume designer) dresses the characters simply and appropriately; and Victoria DeIorio (original sound/sound designer) masterfully sustains this same mood with interscenic underscoring of solo jazz piano (with the feel of contemporary solo Brubeck).  The direction by Nathaniel Swift is effective, strong, balanced.

Highly Recommended

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 19, 2006)

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