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March onstage

Classics abound all over town, including two prize-winning dramas

THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON cast. From L-R: Greg Natale, John Kreuzer, Richard Lambert, Victor Morales and seated Mark Donahue

Photo by Kelli Bocock-Natale


That Championship Season

New Phoenix

by Jason Miller


That Championship Season was the belle of the ball in 1973, when it took home the Tony, Drama Desk, and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards for Best Play, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was revived on Broadway in 2011 with a cast that included Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth, Jim Gaffigan, and the playwright’s son, Jason Patric. Critics who gave the show props for serving up moral bankruptcy on the eve of the Watergate scandal found it not quite as relevant—or innovative—so many years later, but, perhaps it the current climate, all that’s old will seem prescient again.


In the play—which stars Richard Lambert, Greg Natale, Victor Morales, John Kreuzer, and Mark Donohue—“a championship high school basketball team joins their coach for a reunion of their big state championship win,” says New Phoenix artistic director Kelli Bocock-Natale. “As the night goes on, we see that each man is morally challenged, and none has had his dreams realized.”


The play may be old, but it doesn’t seem dated to Bocock-Natale, who says the words coming out of the coach’s mouth sound a lot like today’s political speeches. “The coach’s view is that you have to destroy to win,” she explains. “You have those people who aren’t worthy of success. His last speech in the play [says] ‘We’ve got to win back this country! We are the heart of the country, not them...we can’t let them win, boys!’


“It seemed to fit,” she continues. “With what is going on with our politics, even how hate is learned, it felt right to do it now. The play is so well-written, and you see real humans on stage that just draw the audience in. That’s what I love about it; it’s a great acting piece, and a slice of American life that is still viable.”


Bocock-Natale first saw her uncle act in the play in 1979, when she was fifteen years old. “I thought, ‘Wow!’ I didn’t know theater could be like this; I was drawn in from the first moment,” she recalls. “My uncle played the coach and I just couldn’t believe it was him; he was a wonderful actor. My last year of college, I knew I wanted to do a great acting piece with all of my friends; I had to do a studio show and I picked this play.  My advisor told me that I should not select a play that was about sports—because what did I really know about sports—and I told him the play is nothing about sports. It’s about human frailty and how easily lives can be destroyed by one event. I want audiences to walk away thinking, ‘Is this the right way to end the players’ story or is it the only way the play could end?’ Because to do anything else but agree with the coach and cling to each other would mean saying that they had done nothing with their lives. We all at times have to make these decisions...and does the choice make the players awful people or just human?”


That Championship Season begins at New Phoenix March 16 (newphoenixtheatre.org, 853-1334).



Quick six: ‘night, Mother

by Marsha Norman

at Brazen-Faced Varlets


Synopsis: After Jessie tells Thelma that she’s going to kill herself at the end of the evening, daughter and mother share an unforgettable evening full of humor, pain, and truth.

Anne Pitoniak and Kathy Bates were with the play from its inception through its Broadway run, which ended in 1984, after 380 performances. ‘night, Mother won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2004, the play was revived for Broadway with Brenda Blethyn and Edie Falco.


About the play, Marsha Norman said: “I felt with ’night, Mother that Jessie’s decision to commit suicide was quite brave. She finally decided that she could decide what to do with her life. She says, “My life is all I have that really belongs to me and I’m going to say what happens to it.” Now, it would have been fine with me if she had decided to go to beauty school or get a real estate license. It probably wouldn’t have won the Pulitzer Prize, but it would have been fine. The point was not to kill herself; the point was to take charge.”


‘night, Mother was last produced in Buffalo at Torn Space in 2006, and starred Sharon Strait and Anna Maria Gillespie.


Sissy Spacek, who played Jessie in the 1986 film version, saw the play on Broadway and liked it so much, she immediately started putting a film in motion; she starred with Anne Bancroft. Marsha Norman adapted the screenplay, and it was directed by Tom Moore, who’d directed it for Broadway.


What they said:‘night, Mother is more complex than it looks, more harrowing than even its plot suggests. Miss Norman’s play is simple only in the way that an Edward Hopper painting is simple. As she perfectly captures the intimate details of two individual, ordinary women, this playwright locates the emptiness that fills too many ordinary homes on too many faceless streets in the vast country we live in now.”–Frank Rich, 1983, New York Times. In 2004, the New York Times’ Ben Brantley did not have much praise for the revival, citing casting and direction issues, as opposed to the script, which he called an “ingenious construction.”



Opening This Month

The Nance begins at Subversive Theatre Collective March 1 (subversivetheatre.org, 408-0499).

The Night Alive by Conor McPhersob opens March 2 at Irish Classical Theatre Company (irishclassicaltheatre.com, 853-4282).

Kavinoky welcomes Ben Butler beginning March 2 (kavinokytheatre.com, 829-7668).

Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope opens at the Paul Robeson Theatre March 2 (aaccbuffalo.org, 884-2013).

Something Rotten opens March 6 at Shea’s (sheas.org, 847-0850).

American Repertory Theater opens Jesus Christ Superstar March 8 (artofwny.org, 634-1102).

MusicalFare presents Spring Awakening at Shea’s 710 Theatre starting March 8 (sheas.org, 847-0850).

‘night Mother begins at Brazen-Faced Varlets March 9

Road Less Traveled Productions presents Disgraced beginning March 9 (roadlesstraveledproductions.com; 629-3069).

That Championship Season begins at New Phoenix March 16 (newphoenixtheatre.org, 853-1334).

Betsy Carmichael’s Late Night Bingo runs four days at Shea’s Smith Theatre starting March 23 (sheas.org/SmithTheatre, 716-847-1410).


Also Playing

(in order of closing):

Alleyway ends Beginning Again on March 10 (alleyway.com, 852-2600).

MusicalFare closes Smokey Joe’s Café: the songs of Lieber and Stoller March 11  (musicalfare.com, 839-8540).


Playwright Donna Hoke writes about theater for Spree and Forever Young.


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