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That Championship Season

Jason Miller's 1973 play gets a superior and surprisingly timely revival at the Westport Country Playhouse.

John Doman and Lou Liberatore
in That Championship Season
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Every once in a while a much-lauded work is revived that seems as cogent, if not more so, than when it first appeared. Jason Miller's 1973 play, That Championship Season, now being given a superior production by Mark Lamos at the Westport Country Playhouse, is one of those plays -- and even one that audience members might wish would somehow seem out of step with the times.

The five hot-headed men gathered in David Gallo's stunning representation of a shadowy Victorian home behave painfully like too many of the irate citizens flocking to town meetings these past weeks. Indeed, the gun on the living-room wall that's eventually taken down and aimed at a cowering target could be a stand-in for any of the guns carried with such bravado to those health-care confabs.

The men, initially slapping each other on the back, may have worked seamlessly during the months before the play begins securing their basketball trophy -- which is proudly displayed on the upstage-center mantle -- but over the years, their differences have intensified. The coach (John Doman), who spouts respect for Israel and will gladly grant that Olympic track star Jesse Owens is an exemplary black man, is nevertheless a big-time small-town bigot.

George Sikowski (Robert Clohessy) is in the middle of a campaign to remain mayor of his Lackawanna Valley, Pennsylvania city but needs funds he hopes will be supplied by teammate Phil Romano (Skipp Sudduth). Phil, whose trade-off for the $30,000 he'll donate is the continued ability to strip-mine locally, has doubts about George and is intrigued by the efficiency of George's opponent, a Jew. Not only that, but Phil is guarding -- not too well for dramatic purposes -- a secret that could trouble George's marriage.

Moreover, Phil also doesn't put much faith in James Daley (Lou Liberatore), the teammate who now heads George's reelection operation. The only one standing aside from the fracas is Tom Daley (Tom Nelis), an alcoholic drain on brother James. He's also a dyed-in-the-whiskey cynic and the keeper of yet another secret having to do with why absent teammate Martin skips these boozy evenings.

Miller's achievement is in how solidly over the compact course of 90 minutes he pinpoints the weaknesses underlying apprehension and corruption in the hearts and minds of his contentious quintet. When the coach insists "We are the country," Miller means it. That moment alone attests to the play's immediacy. Yet, it also suggests the ways in which there are problematic aspects to That Championship Season. The play too often indicates how the drama occasionally tips into melodrama. The number of times Miller sends the characters to the dark at the top of the imposing staircase or out the front door so those left can talk behind backs is especially noticeable.

Nonetheless, these five fine actors grab their roles with both hands and shake them into memorable stage figures, each an Everyman with a defining demon.


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