As reconceived for the stage by Eric Simonson, Mark Harris’ 1956 novel Bang the Drum Slowly plays as an agreeable mashup of John Steinbeck’s classic novella Of Mice and Men, which preceded it by about two decades, and Ron Shelton’s marvelous baseball film Bull Durham, which followed it by about three. From the former it borrows its portrait of friendship among unequals; from the latter, its use of the mutable fortunes of America’s Pastime as a metaphor for life, which like a baseball season feels long but ends too soon.
Simonson’s adaptation was first staged in the early ’90s but preserved the story’s contemporary milieu, specifically the ’56 season of the New York “Mammoths” baseball club. Our narrator, the southpaw pitcher Henry Wiggen (who was the subject of four novels by Harris), is played with no small amount of charm by Evan Crump, who always seems like a transplant from another era anyway.
Wiggen’s teammates have nicknamed him “Author,” because he is one. In a period piece that rightly offers no comment when characters drop anti-gay epithets or refer casually to spousal abuse, the most anachronistic feature is that Wiggen is a full-grown man at 23, complete with a pregnant wife, a stack of unpaid tax bills, and the power to feign confidence whenever he must. In this more innocent (or exploitative) era of pro sports, even sought-after players like him must work other jobs during the off-season. Wiggen sells insurance.
He also negotiates his own contract with Mammoths owner “Dutch” Schnell (Craig Miller), demanding that if the Mammoths want him, they have to keep slow-witted catcher Bruce Pearson (Richie Montgomery) on the roster, too. Pearson has Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is not long for this world. Wiggen contrives to keep the diagnosis under wraps, and argues that unprecedented proviso into his contract so Pearson can stay on the team long enough to die doing what he loves.
As with so many stories about athletes or cowboys or soldiers, the unspoken codes governing emotional expression among men emerge as the piece’s true subject. As Schnell, Miller is the actor who best channels Harris’ sense of the game’s cruel humor. His character is weirdly obsessed with finding out why Wiggen is protecting Pearson, demanding at one point to know if they’re “fairies.”
In fact, Pearson becomes smitten with a gold-digging lady prostitute; his earnest declaration in the locker room of how much he loves working up a sweat and then hitting the showers with the boys and then going to eat doesn’t raise an eyebrow. To jaded modern sensibilities it might seem as homoerotic as the volleyball scene in Top Gun, but wasn’t it Bud Selig who once observed, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”? (Richard Greenberg’s fine 2002 play Take Me Out imagined the fallout of a Major League Baseball player announcing he’s gay to the media.)
The result is a sentimental tale of a team coming together, particularly once the Mammoths’ most intractable bully—the washed-up, 35-year-old (!) World War II veteran “Goose” Williams—learns Pearson’s secret. The 15-member cast includes a few whose lack of experience is evident, but the core quartet of Crump, Montgomery, Miller, and John Tweel as Williams is strong. Kyle Lynch demonstrates a commanding presence and a fine singing voice as Piney Woods, a player who gets called up from the minors. Brandon Guilliams’ set manages with just a few wooden lockers surrounding a miniature chain-link backstop to evoke the necessary environments for the tale, and costume designer Marilyn Johnson’s red-on-white team uniforms ably conjure up the period.
The production falters slightly in its final inning, with Crump’s concluding monologue feeling hurried and anticlimactic. But his closing line is a powerful one. He should take a moment to center himself on the mound before he lets it go. —Chris Klimek