The Chester Theatre Group’s first production of the 2012-2013 Season “That Championship Season” was written by Jason Miller and won of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. We had the opportunity to see the original powerful Broadway production with Charles Durning and Paul Sorvino. Last night at the CTG’s comfortable and intimate Black River Playhouse we saw the play again after all these years, this time in the hands of a community theater group. This time the play was just as powerful with a cast of five men who’s performances were of professional level in every respect.
As someone who has the good fortune of viewing and reviewing about 50-60 professional and community New Jersey productions per year, I continue to marvel at the high level of much of New Jersey’s theater offerings. The efforts of the “pros” such as the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, the Paper Mill Playhouse, the Dreamcatcher Repertory Company, the George Street Playhouse, the Centenary Stage Company, the Women’s Theater Company, the Bickford Theatre, Premiere Stages and McCarter Theatre consistently are the equal certainly of Off-Broadway and much of Broadway. Simple, of course, since most of the actors are veterans of New York theater and television.
The level of the efforts of community theatre can and often do match the “pros.” The prime reason is because many of the ‘work-for-no-pay’ community actors have New York and national touring company credits but elected to retreat from the often dismal earnings opportunities in the theater today to raise and support families. Currently, you can see this professional level at the Summit Playhouse’s “The Best Man” and the Chatham Community Players “39 Steps.” The Chester Theatre Group’s production directed by Roseann Ruggiero and produced by Penny Hoadley, again, is at that level.
Now here is where I must mention that I attended last night’s performance of “That Championship Season” as a patron, and former board member, with no intention of writing a review. However, in light of the superior performances I trust you will forgive me for trumpeting their efforts.
The play is powerful as it “explores the power of authority, various shades of disappointment, resentment and betrayal” between four basketball team members and their coach having a reunion twenty-five years after they won the Pennsylvania State High School Basketball Championship. The Coach is still the master of pep talks who has had great impact on their lives far beyond basketball. Lives that, like the rest of us, did not turn out as planned.
The players are Phil Romano played by Nick Leone (Nick has extensive professional experience…and it shows brilliantly); the small town mayor up for re-election, George Sikowski played with great feeling by Lou Savarese, he starts slowly as the confident, popular, in his mind, savior of his community and perfectly progresses to a man who’s world is turned violently upside down; James Daley the Junior High School Principal who is on the fast track to the school superintendent’s job. A position that will earn him the respect he believes he has been unfairly denied, played with great sensitivity by David C. Neal; Tom Daley is James’ younger, and alcoholic brother, who doesn’t share the same admiration the others have for the Coach. Tom is played perfectly by Craig Zimmermann, veteran of community theater throughout the Morris County area.
Last in the list of players is the central role of the Coach. Two thirds into the rehearsal schedule, the original actor selected for the part had to bow out for health reasons. Director Ruggerio turned, with nine rehearsal dates remaining, to the veteran CTG actor (most recently Jeeves in “By Jeeves”) Robert Longstreet. Longstreet gives an absolutely exceptional performance. As with the entire cast, his Coach starts with an emotional high in the reunion of “his boys” that could only follow a downward path.
This is terrific theater, remember it was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Surprisingly, for a play loaded with references to the 1970’s, including JFK and even Joe McCarthy, the play holds up very well with the mayor’s reelection battle providing many similarities to our current political contests. Be prepared for language of the “locker room” variety that includes a good number of ethnic and racial references that are, thankfully, politically and socially incorrect today.
Reviewed by Rick Busciglio October 26, 2012
Director Ruggerio’s key production staff: Stephen Catron Stage Manager, Set Construction, Set Decoration, Sound and Lighting Operator; Diane Butler Props, Set Decoration; Ellen Fraker-Glasscock Lighting Design; Jeff Knapp Sound and Lighting; and Penny Hoadley Producer, Costume Design.
The production will run on Fridays/Saturdays at 8 pm through November 4th with matinees on Sundays October 28 and November 4th at 2 pm. The theater is located on the corners of Grove Street and Maple Avenue in Chester, NJ. Tickets are $20 with a discounted student (under 18) and senior (over 65) ticket price of $18.00
For reservations and further information you can call 908-879-7304 or visit the CTG website www.chestertheatregroup.org.