Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
I love football. As a young boy my brother and I would play in pickup games with neighborhood kids every day after school until it got too dark to see the ball, then toss the ball back and forth from one bed to another until it was time to go to sleep. I never played varsity, partly because by the time I was in high school I knew that my sport was gymnastics and mostly because I had no talent and even less tolerance for the violence and injury that came with playing against guys who were serious about it. Still, I love the game and it's combination of skill and intensity, power and finesse, the passion and absolute dedication it takes from the players. I love the beauty of perfectly executed plays, complex strategies and a resolution of absolute victory or defeat. I watch the NFL every Sunday during the season, and it's satisfying as entertainment, but rarely do I consider those armored chess pieces as complete human beings, this particular game the locus for a whole life. That's where “Runt of the Litter” comes in.
Bo Eason was also a kid playing backyard football with his brother when he first designed his twenty-year plan to lead him to playing in the NFL. More like a monastic devotion than a child's fantasy, he spent every day of the next twenty years pursuing that goal. Following his more talented older brother, he actually achieved that goal and ultimately found himself on a field playing opposite that brother, one team to win and one to lose, and in the final, defining moment of the game, he also defined with a single, terrible hit that lifelong goal of winning at any cost, how he arrived at that moment and what that cost really was.
This one man show, written and performed by Bo Eason and expertly directed by Larry Moss, is an entertaining, intimate, ultimately moving journey through one man’s war story, and it is clear from early on that for all the joy he gets from playing, football for him is not a game, can never be just a game, no matter who might call it that. It is no less than mortal combat. It takes place on the field and also on the battlefield of a family in which the father is demanding, unyielding and unfair and the mother drowned in alcohol with her own losses.
The story uses sport to achieve a dimension and depth that is strikingly epic, almost classical in its tragedy and in the depth of its moral exploration. In the end we are brought, almost against our will, to a judgment of this man. That requires that we care about him, that we accept the honesty of his self-revelation, the truth of his saga. Eason accomplishes all that. It's a testament both to his skill as a writer and, even more, to his integrity as a performer. From the time he comes out into the locker room of the stage, spinning a football on its end, we understand that this guy is accustomed to playing to the stands, that he will let his skill speak for him, and that we can believe exactly what he says. One of the themes of this show is that football is all about absolutes, one wins or loses, one makes the team or not, one plays hurt or quits, you put everything into every hit or you're not really playing. He says as a boy he caught a thousand passes every day, and never fell short or missed a day. Those are the rules.
Eason is also an entertainer, a guy who has a ton of personality and enjoys playing to the stands and playing to his teammates on the field. Part of the effectiveness of this show is that it makes us feel like we are also his teammates, joined in a common effort, depending on one another at the same time that each of us has individual responsibility. Above all, we understand that a player has to understand the character of the guy next to him, and that we can believe this guy. What he says is what he means, and what he means is what he does. There is not a hint of compromise, and that is both the measure of the man and the path to his awful catharsis.
“Runt of the Litter” is filled with the kind of inside information that fans love to dig into, stories from a gridiron hero who's been there, but it is no less reluctant to show us the ugly side of the NFL, playing the game with surgeries, daily injections, hideous mechanical braces and denial of any doubt that it could all be worth it. And that question of is it all worth it, does losing the goal imply losing the intention, has a powerful resonance to Eason and to all of us as a nation. At a time when the stage is a bit overrun with one-person memoir shows, this one really stands out, really convinces that this story is worth our time and this man’s history is relevant to our own. It’s a terrific show.