Theatre Review: ‘That Championship Season’ at New Phoenix Theatre

The cast of “That Championship Season” at New Phoenix Theatre.

Friday night, I went to the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park to see their production of Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, “That Championship Season.”

This is a drama that takes place in small town America in the 1970’s or 1980’s. Middle aged men, members of a winning basketball team when they were in high school, have a reunion with their coach. The lives of these men have taken surprising twists and turns since their high school days. Their god has always been winning – whatever the cost – and they’ve paid a high price as they’ve tried to travel the road to success.

. . .a tight production with a uniformly strong cast and excellent direction.

The acting ensemble is top notch with Richard Lambert as a slimy politician, John Kreuzer as a mealy school principal, and Victor Morales as a narcissistic business tycoon. Greg Natale is amusingly inventive and frighteningly realistic as an active alcoholic. And Mark Donahue is a force of nature. He blasts onto the stage like a hurricane and gives a wonderfully dynamic performance as their coach.

There’s first class direction by Kelli Bocock-Natale. The pace is brisk with breathless emotional highs and lows, and our attention never flags. There are a couple of stage punches that could use more oomph, but this is quibbling. Ms. Bocock-Natale is one of WNYs best stage directors and the production rests easily in her capable hands.

Production values are solid. Chris Wilson has wisely designed an unusual two-sided set that keeps the audience close to the action. Costumes are by Matt Gilbert; lights and sound are by Chris Cavanaugh.

Several times during the evening, actors smoke onstage. Audience members who are sensitive to cigarette smoke, might want to bring an inhaler or sit in the back row.

My main challenge is with the play itself. I know that it has won multiple awards and, in the early 1970’s, when this play was first produced, many people still had an idealized view about small town America and so “That Championship Season,” with the character’s rough language and extremely offensive put downs of women and minorities, was a real eye opener. Today we’re, unfortunately, all too clear about the widespread bigotry throughout our country, and so I’m not sure what a present day audience is supposed to take away from this play. Yes, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia are timely topics, but the play offers no insights or hope.

That being said, this is a tight production with a uniformly strong cast and excellent direction.

Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including two intermissions.

“That Championship Season” runs until April 7, 2018, and is presented at New Phoenix Theatre. For more information, click here.