Jason Alan Griffin and Nick Mathewsin The Jocker(© Carol Rosegg)
Jason Alan Griffin and Nick Mathews
in The Jocker
(© Carol Rosegg)
The Jocker is a bad title for the play that's now on view at the Wings Theatre, because it's fair to assume that almost nobody knows what "jocker" means. (A friend of mine asked, "Is it an Australian word?") Of Mice and Gay Men would do a better job of indicating the play's content, but that title would be too flip for Clint Jeffries' drama, which explores the relationships between hobos at the height of the Great Depression.

The first thing to be said about the men depicted here is that, in all probability, none of them would describe themselves as "gay" -- even if the use of that word to mean "homosexual" had already become common by the early 1930s. But this doesn't meant that there isn't a whole lot of sex going on among them, whether consensual or not. One of the characters, the brutal Biloxi Billy, is in fact a "jocker," which the program helpfully defines as "a tramp who is accompanied by a youth who begs for him or acts as his catamite." (I'll save you the trouble of looking up that last word; it means "a boy used in pederasty.")

Billy is emotionally and physically abusive to the angel-faced, 16-year-old Nat, who eventually makes a desperate attempt to escape the situation. This horribly unhealthy relationship is contrasted with that of two other hobos, the gentle and supportive 'Bama and Shakespeare. Also on hand is Lucky, a black man who resorts to prostitution to keep body and soul together but falls in love with the sweet-natured tramp Dodger.

The Jocker is sometimes over-earnest and a bit overwrought but ultimately quite affecting in getting beneath the skins of the characters, thanks in large part to the strong cast of the Wings production. Stephen Tyrone Williams is superb as Lucky, allowing the man to retain his full dignity even as he whores himself and endures being taunted with the "n" word; think of a young Sidney Poitier and you'll have a pretty good idea of the kind of quietly powerful actor we're talking about. Williams' scenes with the equally superb David Tacheny as Dodger are among the most moving in the play.

Another deeply felt relationship is that of 'Bama and Shakespeare, played so well by Jason Alan Griffin and Michael Lazar that one could hear audience members sobbing and sniffling as one of the men came to a tragic end. Stephen Cabral doesn't fully connect with the role of the despicable Biloxi Billy, but Nick Mathews is wonderful as the desperate, put-upon Nat. Though some of Mathews' transitions between affection and hysteria could be more convincing, his passion, intensity, and Young Hollywood-type good looks mark him as a star to be.

Aside from occasionally sluggish pacing and the fact that some more guidance might have been offered to Cabral and Mathews, director Jeffrey Corrick has done fine work here. Williams Ward's set design, consisting largely of a chain-link fence and a sky backdrop, is simple but evocative; the same can be said of Eric Larson's lighting. Costume designer L.J. Kleeman has clothed the cast in duds that seem 100 percent appropriate to the period.

The financially unstable Wings Theatre has a spotty track record, but it has given this play a solid production. Indeed, The Jocker is the best show I've ever seen at the Wings, and definitely worth your while.