Reviewed by Judy Richter
Playwright KJ Sanchez with Jenny Mercein explores part of the lure of football in "X's and O's (A Football Love Story)". Berkeley Repertory Theatre is presenting its world premiere under the astute direction of artistic director Tony Taccone.
Much of the play focuses on the sport's risks, especially brain injuries, specifically chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. "CTE is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, including symptomatic concussions as well as sub-concussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms," according to Wikipedia.
Football players are susceptible to it because the sport involves so many hard falls and violent collisions between players. The problem has been in the news with a suit by former players against the National Football League as well as other incidents, including the suicide of Junior Seau, a retired player, in 2012.
The play touches on other aspects of football, such as its history and evolution of equipment, but barely mentions other issues such as domestic violence and other criminal behavior, racism, commercialism and big business. "There are certain issues that are really hot topics ... that we felt just couldn't fit in one play. A lot of these subjects deserve their own plays," the playwrights say in the program.
They also say that most of the dialogue comes directly from people they interviewed for the play, but they changed the names.
An excellent ensemble cast of four men and two women portrays a range of characters. Bill Geisslinger first appears as Frank, a retired running back, while Dwight Hicks is first seen as George Coleman, a former defensive back. Hicks may be most familiar to local audiences as a former standout member of the San Francisco 49ers.
Among others, Anthony Holiday plays Addicott, a former defensive end, while Eddie Ray Jackson is a young fan and player. Marilee Talkington is authoritative as a team physician who talks about the physical and psychological aspects of CTE. Co-creator Jenny Mercein (daughter of former pro player Chuck Mercein) completes the cast in several female roles.
Although all of the play is fascinating, one of the most effective scenes comes near the end when three family members -- played by the two women and Jackson -- talk about how their loved ones, who were former football players, declined mentally and then died at tragically young ages.
Scenes that might need some tweaking occur in a sports bar where three fans, played by Holiday, Jackson and Mercein, talk about their attitudes toward football while watching a game.
Production values are strong with Todd Rosenthal's flexible set enhanced by lighting and videos designed by Alexander V. Nichols. Meg Neville's costumes suit the characters (such as Geisslinger as a rabid Raiders fan). The sound is by Jake Rodriguez, while John Sipes served as movement director.
Adding to the atmosphere on opening night, the Cal band played in the courtyard before the game, and the ushers and other workers wore striped referee shirts.
This is a play that deserves a wide audience as it explores a serious issue regarding the role of football in our culture and the toll it takes on its players and their families. As one character says, NFL actually stands for "not for long."
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