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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 5, edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
George Street’s "Winning Streak"
It was 1998 and the San Diego Padres had risen to the top of their division in the National League, led again by Trevor Hoffman, who ties a league record with 53 saves in 54 chances, the second most in baseball history. Meanwhile Greg Vaughn slugged a club-record 50 home runs and drove in 119 runs. The Padres won a club record 98 games enroute to their second division title in three years and an appearance in the World Series.
It was also in 1998 that playwright Lee Blessing was told that his father was diagnosed with lung cancer. The prognosis was not good – six months at the outside – for the senior Blessing, who was living in retirement in San Diego.
"The one thing I noticed was how quickly the disease was disabling him," says Blessing, who, although he was living in Manhattan, was spending more and more time with his father. The other thing that Blessing noticed was how the San Diego Padres, in the midst of a winning streak, gave his father the will to get up and see another day. "It gave him a lifeline as it also gave me the idea for my play ‘The Winning Streak.’ The play, having its East Coast premiere, marks a return, after just one season, to George Street Playhouse for the author of the 1988 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-nominated "A Walk in the Woods," revived there last season.
Just as Blessing knew how much watching the Padres meant to his father, he knew it was also the time for him to confront and work out certain issues with him. Blessing makes it clear that the characters and the issues in the play are not the same as those he faced with his father. However, he explains that the reunion and the process by which the father, Omar, a retired major league baseball umpire, and Ryland, the son he never knew, get to know and understand each other is similar.
"The reason that I love this play, about two men who were going to forge a bond that lasts, is that it gets farther down the road in that regard than I was able to go with my father." Blessing admits that he was determined that his characters would have the kind of resolution that he didn’t have with his father. "But you don’t have to be a baseball fan to love ‘The Winning Streak.’ It’s very funny. You’ll laugh a lot," he promises.
Blessing is hardly the first playwright to use baseball as either the theme (the musical "Damn Yankees") or the background (Richard Greenberg’s "Take Me Out"). When it comes to writing about real baseball history and tradition, Blessing’s "Cobb," about Ty Cobb, which won the Drama Desk Award for ensemble acting) was an outstanding example and a well-deserved Off-Broadway success.
"I’ve always been a baseball fan," he says, recalling his first professionally-produced play/baseball monologue "Old-Timers Game." His original screenplay for "Cooperstown," starring Alan Arkin and Graham Greene, aired in January, 1992, on TNT in its Screenworks series. "Baseball is fine but I’m using it to tell a much more personal story," says Blessing. "People who don’t know or like baseball come and see these plays and are delighted, or so I am told," he says immodestly.
In "The Winning Streak," Blessing once again turns to baseball, but this time using it as a catalyst that brings together for the first time a father and the son he never knew. Did Blessing grow up a Padres fan? "No, I grew up in Minneapolis, a Twins fan."
Blessing, the author of nearly 30 plays, including such Off-Broadway hits as "Thief River," "Chesapeake," "Eleemosynary," and "Down the Road," was honored by the Signature Theater Company during the 1992-’93 season, which it gave over entirely to his plays. Possibly his most controversial and most surreal play to date is "Whores" – about a retired general of a Central American country now living in Florida, where he has been granted amnesty from prosecution on charges of committing atrocities – which has just completed a run at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. It is on the slate for a run at Playwrights Theater of New Jersey in Madison later this season.
Glancing over the plays that comprise Blessing’s canon to date offers evidence that he is not only a prolific playwright, but he is, indeed, an "explorer" (his word). His themes are as varied as are the themes and styles in which he writes. "As an artist I see myself as an adventurer," he says, "part of my self-exploration that makes me want to try different forms." Directly following the opening of "The Winning Streak," Blessing anticipates the Off-Broadway premiere of his play "Going to St. Ives," in which two women, an English eye surgeon and her patient, the mother of an African dictator, confront geo-political issues. The play opens in March at the new East 59th Street venue of Primary Stages.
Blessing believes that every writer has to find the genre in which he or she happens to be the most articulate. "I started as a poet and writing short stories, but in my graduate years at the University of Iowa, where I was acting a lot as well, I discovered that writing dramas came more naturally and I could say more than with poetry." As the head of the graduate playwriting program at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, Blessing says that teaching someone to write dramatic literature is hard because (using a quote from George S. Kaufman), "Playwriting is not a craft. It’s a secret." He acknowledges that you can only help people who already have an insight and a feel for the form.
Blessing says that the first time he wrote a play was in high school. "I did it to get out of writing a 30 page term paper," he recalls.
But where did that playwriting gene come from?
‘I come from a pleasant mid-Western family where no one had the slightest interest in the arts," he says. "Although they have been very supportive of me, they almost never go to the theater. But they will come to my plays." Born and raised in Minneapolis, Blessing spent two years at the University of Minnesota before transferring to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he graduated with a degree in English with an emphasis on poetry.
He received his graduate degree at Iowa in 1979. I am surprised to hear Blessing tell me that he was in his 40s before he left Minneapolis. "It was more feasible and economically attractive for me to stay in Minneapolis at a time when regional theater was hitting its stride," he says. "I’m a mid-western writer." He has only been a Manhattanite since 2001.
As expected with new plays, Blessing continues to tweak "The Winning Streak" with the help of director Lucie Tiberghien, who also recently directed the world premiere of Blessing’s "Flag Day" at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia. "I’ll continue to work on a play until it’s published and then I move on," says Blessing, who matter-of-factly adds that he has been writing about two plays a year.
Luckily "The Winning Streak" never became what is generally referred to as "a trunk play" after its initial reading in 1999 at the O’Neill Center. In 2000 he directed a fully staged production at the Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati. "It was the first time I had ever directed a play and I don’t think I want to do it again," he says, "especially since it is so time consuming. I would rather put my play in the hands of someone I trust, like Tiberghien."
It was the staged reading, held one year ago at the John Houseman Theater, that convinced George Street’s artistic director David Saint that "The Winning Streak" was a play he wanted to produce. "Because working in the theater requires both collaboration and cooperation, I was eager to have Tiberghien, who had done such a great job with ‘Flag Day,’ impress Saint," says Blessing. He didn’t know her work, but after one meeting Saint was convinced. Blessing’s choice was validated.
Dan Lauria, best known for his portrayal of Jack Arnold, the father in the long-running television series "The Wonder Years," is playing Omar, the retired umpire who still lives and breathes the game. Playhouse audiences will remember the laughs generated by Lauria and company in "Inspecting Carol," a hilarious spoof of "A Christmas Carol" during the 1998 season. Blessing gives Lauria credit for producing another reading of "The Winning Streak" in Los Angeles in 2000 and for remaining a champion of the play. Brennan Brown, who appeared in "Major Barbara" on Broadway with Cherry Jones, is making his George Street Playhouse debut as Ryland, the product of a brief affair some 30 years ago, someone who knows nothing about baseball nor does he particularly care to learn.
Blessing’s father kept up with the Padres until the end. The Yankees swept the Padres in the World Series, but Tony Gwynn would bat .500 (8-for-16) with a homer and three RBIs. Now Blessing is at the plate and ready to hit his next homer and say, "This one’s for you, Dad."
The Winning Streak, through January 30, George Street Playhouse. $28 to $56. 732-246-7717 or visit www.gsponline.org.
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