That Championship Season
Jason Miller's 1972 drama is about five men whose lives have not gone as they'd hoped and who therefore seek refuge in memories of their glory days. Unhappy people who live in the past are to be found around every corner in modern drama, but in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Miller admirably gets through the minefields of the subject matter.
Four buddies, all in their late 30s and all former players on a championship high school team, meet at the home of their now-retired coach for an annual ritual of reminiscing. But it turns out that there is very little time for reliving the good old days, as the men all have present concerns occupying their thoughts: George (Scott Twiligear), affable but none too bright, is the mayor of their small Pennsylvania town and is facing election time. James (Andrei Mignea) is his hard-working campaign manager, the Coach (Jim Williams) is his unofficial counselor, and Phil (Michael Floyd) is a successful businessman who supports George because George supports his interests. But incompetence, adultery, mistrust, disloyalty, and the rantings of James's alcoholic brother Tom (Tristan Coal) threaten to tear the "team" apart.
Joseph Hammond's basement recreation room set, with its prominent trophy case and gun rack, is the backdrop for the reunion. All of the actors in the five-man ensemble are entirely believable as men on the verge of middle age; they're not yet caught up in regret, only in the process of making bad decisions that will plague them as they age. Miller doesn't pull any punches in his a realistic picture of these small-town characters; he never condescends and is honest about their flaws. Indeed, some audience members might be surprised by the group's casual racism and sexism, though Tom does serve as the conscience of the group in this respect.
Director Rusty Meyers moves the show along at a brisk pace and keeps the cast prowling about the room as tensions run high. Less successful is Meyers' attempt to update the action of the piece to the year 2000. Though written 30 years ago, That Championship Season still has a contemporary feel--local politics and high school basketball certainly still play a major role in the lives of many small towners--and the play would have resonated without changing the date. Though this decision no doubt made for easier costuming, it renders some references to Vietnam (referred to as "the war") and the Depression confusing. Also puzzling is the ending: It should be one of questionable happiness, yet here it is presented as if everything has been wrapped up in a nice, bright bow.