By Sandi Durell
I am astonished that it took me so long to finally have this pleasurable theater experience at Penguin Rep in Stony Point, NY!
When Artistic Director Joe Brancato contacted me about coming up, I did put it on my list, but . . . you know how life is . . . you get busy, you forget. But then Joe contacted me again, even said he’d be happy to give me a lift. A definite reminder! And so, I rented a car on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and drove up with my husband to see Cobb.
This turned out to be one of the more memorable days I’ve had in theater, visiting the 1880 barn that inspired a dream and vision of Joe Brancato to have a theatre of his own. And 40 years later that dream came true when he and Francine Newman-McCarthy made this a reality. From a small summer theater to one of the more notable non-profit cultural institutions! And it’s only one hour from New York City!
My connection to Joe Brancato began quite recently when I saw and reviewed Daniel’s Husband, written by Michael McKeever, that premiered at Penguin Rep. It was then produced by Ted Snowden at the Cherry Lane Theater. In my book, it was one of this past season’s more memorable productions that left me stunned by the insightful realities and ability to create illusion in an unexpected journey. Brilliant!
But while I digress . . . let me now return to the production at hand, Cobb by Lee Blessing, directed by Joe Brancato, that creates another angle about the recalcitrant baseball legend Ty Cobb. Yes, he was a hostile, violent son of a *a#&%#, but that’s not how he wants to be remembered – not in this production. Who would want to leave that kind of legacy, even if most of it was true. So it’s a battle as we follow the life of Ty Cobb (the first inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame), in flashbacks from 1886 thru 1991 in Georgia and beyond. The elder dying (now dead Cobb – Steve Bradbury) is in constant conflict with his younger self (of varying ages and stages) as memories flood from and about this man who “was a philanthropist and a racist who played poker with presidents and died a multimillionaire largely forgotten.” From his boyhood early days, growing up in Georgia, a young upstart (Todd Lawson) knew he was destined for greatness and never lets you forget it. There’s a backstory about his mother, married at age 12, who may have knowingly killed her husband, and a trial where she is eventually acquitted. But as they succinctly say or fight about in the play “it’s a Greek tragedy.” There’s a lot of bickering and hostility as the three Cobbs rehash their life – Peach played by Andy Striph, the more middle aged version. Each recalls incidents somewhat differently – more to fight about. In fact, Ty Cobb’s entire existence seemed to be a battle, both physically and verbally. His assaults and shouting matches well documented. His teammates didn’t like him, always in fights, eventually getting suspended. Racial inequality (especially in the South and during his reign) precluded blacks on the same team. But in the wings, and brought into the play, Oscar Charleston (known as the Black Cobb played by Damian Thompson), challenges the mean spirited, now elder more subdued (?) Cobb taunting him that he’ll never know if he was really better because they never had a chance to compete.
The play has its share of comedy, i.e. Cobb insisting that his greatest pleasure was stealing home base (which he did 54 times) . . . better than his wedding night!
The references to ball playing and his own prominence are front and center and the fact that Cobb was intelligent. While other ballplayers wasted free time womanizing and drinking, Cobb, playing for the Detroit Tigers, situated himself at the Oak Bar in Detroit’s famous Hotel Pontchartrain where the automobile magnets of the day met and freely talked about the industry, and where Cobb listened closely, buying stock in General Motors, along with Coca Cola (for which he was a spokesperson) making him a multi millionaire by the time he died.
Yes, we all want to be remembered and Cobb, the ultimate competitor, certainly is, as he says – – as the quickest, meanest, fastest, best man to play the game.
The four character ensemble are finely honed by Joe Brancato’s sleek direction in this intelligent docu-drama, keeping the audience well involved in the 80 minute run time. Thru July 23.
Upcoming is the 40th Anniversary Gala Sunday July 16 with host Barbara Feldon.
Photos: Dorice A. Madronero
The season continues with Allan Knee’s Syncopation (a romantic comedy) August 11 – September 3, followed by a world premiere of Fall River by Frederick Stoppel October 13 thru November 5. Fall River then moves to 59e59 Street Theaters in NYC – it’s all about Lizzie Borden!
More information: www.PenguinRep.org