by Sergei Burbank · August 19, 2015
Christina Pumariega, James B. Kennedy | Hunter Canning
In Jonathan A. Goldberg’s Sousepaw: A Baseball Story, one character asks another: “Will they still be playing baseball one hundred years from now?” (I’m paraphrasing -- without the actual script you can only paraphrase this ephemeral, haunting, otherworldly play). For a moment I think, smugly, I know the answer -- “of course they do, I’ll be checking the scores when I get home tonight” -- but Sousepaw is a postcard from another world, and the answer is far less obvious. There are plenty of contemporary dissolute pitchers -- everyone from the frighteningly violent (Donnie Moore) to the charmingly oddball (Doc Ellis) to the satisfyingly redemptive (Dwight Gooden): flawed men with more talent for throwing a ball than they rightfully knew what to do with will always hold our gaze. But just as the concept of “bored” in our overstimulated age has been radically transformed, so have other human conditions. Maybe, one hundred years later, we don’t have as clear an idea as these characters do of what it means to be well and truly lost.
It is Texas, 1913, and in a flea-bitten rented room an aging baseball pitcher, ‘Rube’ Waddell (James B. Kennedy) meets up with a circus performer, “The Reptile Girl” (Christina Pumariega). The setting is seedy, and the assignation -- while idiosyncratic -- fits the context. A reformed boozer, Waddell has hired the Reptile Girl to come to his room and help distract him the night before he’s to meet with the general manager of a local team. Her distractions take many forms -- with grappling of both the athletic and lustful sort -- as well as with language: they tell stories to each other about themselves. The meeting quickly goes from exchange to courtship, and from its outset, their onstage relationship -- the offstage origins of which are left intentionally fuzzy -- is far beyond the transactional: he is on the verge of a triumphant second, final act in his baseball career, and needs not only someone to help distract him from opening another bottle, but an audience for his ascension to legend; she arrives with a suitcase that contains all her worldly possessions (consisting of circus costumes that she changes through creating her one-woman show), and her clear intention is not to return to the circus.
But what are their plans? Both can only think of moving forward, holding out for a brighter future; the Reptile Girl’s compulsion comes from a need to flee -- at first an abusive home, then a doomed romance, and finally the experiences she has endured to survive. She wears her experiences as a badge of honor: “My scars are beautiful,” she declares -- even as she wishes he could have met her before she had them. Waddell’s gaze ahead is more ambiguous: tomorrow will be better than today, but he still remembers the past fondly. His memories of the endless pursuit of a good time -- which came to the detriment of his talent and baseball career -- is nevertheless something he clings to as warmly as his notebook with cute animal pictures (that he turns to when he craves a drink). They are both helpless optimists -- Waddell embraces this, while the Reptile Girl curses herself for it: he can spin a convincing yarn about the good times to come, and she can’t help but believe in it.
They circle the the small room together, and circle the drain -- the last outstanding question being whether they can muster the energy to pull out of this downward current. There are many pretty stories being bandied back and forth, but finally only one of them will recognize the pattern for what it is, and save themselves by stepping back. Only one of them can truly survive.
If Jazz is the first true American art form, the hard-luck loser who can’t help but try again is America’s contribution to the stage. Rather than their Grecian or Shakespearean counterparts who rise to great heights but inevitably fall by the end, American hucksters -- Willy Loman and Theodore Hickman join many others with Waddell on this list -- start face-down (in Waddell’s case, literally), and spend their time on the stage scrambling upright, only to land on their faces again. They do not accept the overwhelming power of social station or fate (in the world of Sousepaw they call it “luck”); Waddell has the audacity to believe the American credo that luck is what you make of it. Oedipus is destined to fall; Waddell is destined to try, incessantly and unsuccessfully, to overcome his flaws.
Naturalism in contemporary drama can drive playwrights to distraction as they try to justify the circumstances of their worlds. Efforts to explain why characters enter a room, why they stay there, how they get out, sometimes overwhelm efforts to spend well the time in that room. Goldberg’s sublime script is so sure-handed, so well done, that it never doubts itself for a second. We don’t need the details of how they got into that room; they are here, they will stay as long as necessary, and therefore they quickly ascend to wonderfully heightened language. There is an ephemeral, dream-like quality that permeates the entire experience, and the aftermath of the play feels like trying to remember a hazy, rambling pre-dawn conversation with an articulate stranger. You can’t remember a blasted detail about it, but you do remember the depth of feeling while you were there.
This production has all the trappings of an athletic event: the playing space is roped off (excellently minimalist, evocative production design by April Bartlett), the combatants clearly discernable (Deanna R. Frieman’s costume design makes Christina Pumariega’s Reptile Girl seem ever more exposed even as she’s layered under multiple costumes), and both Pumariega and Kennedy’s full-bodied devotion to their performances leaves everything out on the boards. This extremely well-done piece enriches this year’s festival beyond measure.