In this finely crafted, Pulitzer and Tony award-winning play, actor/playwright Jason Miller paints a sad picture of a group of former basketball players whose later lives and careers never lived up to their glory days as high school champions. This odd assortment of characters, minus one teammate, attends a 25-year reunion at their old coach’s house to reminisce and relive that shining moment when they captured the championship. In a story told with biting humor and dramatic insight, we see that what lies beneath the bravado and braggadocio of these middle-aged men is a quiet desperation and the realization that although they were the stars of yesteryear, they are nothing more than floundering fish in the proverbial small pond. After all these years, they still look to their coach for guidance, but what they get instead are a bunch of hollow platitudes and racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic rants.
Each character, in his own way, embodies a different type of personal failure and they are thus pathetic creatures, with little to garner audience sympathy. First, there’s George, the current mayor of the small town in Pennsylvania where the story takes place, who is battling current opinion of his political ineptitude and a charismatic Jewish opponent for his seat. Then we have James, a junior high school principal, who is riding on George’s coattails, hopefully to a seat on the local school board, and James’ brother Tom, who never actually made a name for himself anywhere, traveling instead from town to town in an alcoholic haze. Phil is the most financially successful of the group. He became rich through the strip-mining business that he inherited from his father, obtaining permits through backhanded deals and political patronage. And although he supports George financially, he is also having an affair with George’s wife.
The fifth character in this ensemble is the Coach, who still expects his boys to live up to the promise of their youthful championship. He is a racist and a bigot whose personal heroes were Joseph McCarthy and Father Charles Coughlin. He encourages the men to never accept anything less than success, and to do whatever it takes to win, no matter how underhanded, or how dirty the play.
Therein lies the biggest problem the group faces. The Coach still treats them like "the boys" and they still revere their Coach despite his personal shortcomings. They have never grown up, and with nothing to shore up their personalities – no more roar of the crowd – and only empty encouragement from their leader, they feel that their lives are hollow and wasted. James fears that he is a nobody, Tom drinks to fill his emptiness, Phil realizes that people only want him for his money and his best days are behind him, and George is standing on the brink of a ruined political career and a sham of a marriage.
As the evening progresses, lies are uncovered, secrets revealed, and the tenuous bonds among the men unravel. Yet despite the surprises, Coach is always there to bolster their spirits and patch things up. By evening’s end, as the men pose for the camera, we know just how shabby a portrait of camaraderie that team picture is, just as we know the Coach is nothing more than a false idol, and despite the outward appearance of success, the men’s smiles simply mask the emptiness of their lives.
The actors fill their roles perfectly, with standout performances by Tom Nelis as Tom Daley and John Doman as Coach. The show is directed by Westport Country Playhouse’s Artistic Director John Lamos and has an amazing set design by David Gallo. That Championship Season runs through September 12 at the Westport Country Playhouse.
1. L-R: Tom Nelis and Robert Clohessy in That Championship Season at Westport Country Playhouse. (203)227-4177. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
2. L-R: John Doman, Robert Clohessy, Lou Liberatore and Tom Nelis in That Championship Season at Westport Country Playhouse. (203)227-4177. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
3. L-R: John Doman in That Championship Season at Westport Country Playhouse. (203)227-4177. Photo by T. Charles Erickson