Writer Andrew Guerdat and his subject, the late baseball broadcaster Red Barber, couldn’t ask for a better interpreter than David Garrison, who stars in Red Remembers, the rather undramatic new solo show at the Berkshire Theater Festival, directed by John Rando. Only 57 years old himself, Garrison convincingly plays a man who is a quarter-century older, walking and gesturing with the pained circumscription of advanced age and getting annoyed with himself when he loses his train of thought.
But Garrison’s strong efforts aside, the first-time playwright hasn’t figured out how best to package the highlights of a biography so as to craft a compelling narrative. Instead, Guerdat opts to present Barber in the final year of his life, puttering about his tidy, memorabilia-laden Florida study as we, the audience, are addressed as strangers come to inquire about adopting a cat.
Unseen (and unheard, but for the occasional crash of broken glass in the next room) is Lylah, Barber’s wife of 59 years, who is lost to “the fourth stage of Alzheimer’s … middle dementia.” (In his program notes, as well as in the play’s final scene, Guerdat points to Barber’s loyalty to his non compos mentis wife as “the kind of small, human test we will all surely face.”)
It’s a grim setting in which to listen to Barber recount the entire arc of his career, starting with his first broadcast at the University of Florida (a dissertation on bovine obstetrics) and petering out after 1966, when he instructed the CBS camera crew to pan an extremely poorly attended Yankees game. Still, one has to give Barber points for honest reportage; he’s nothing if not frank, admitting, for instance, that as a born-and-bred Southerner, he was tempted to quit in protest when Jackie Robinson was added to the Dodgers’ hitherto all-white roster in 1947. Objectivity won out, and he says that Robinson later thanked him, for “treating him the same as any other ball player.”
As heroic gestures go, it’s not the stuff of great drama — especially when relegated to the distant past and buried amid such marquee names as Ethel Barrymore, Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Gleason, and “Dutch” Reagan (not to mention innumerable players and commentators only a diehard baseball history buff would recognize). Perhaps Barber’s own written memoirs, still available on bookshelves, might have sufficed for those interested in this story.