Arlington — Theatre Arlington plays the last inning of a wide-ranging 2017-2018 season (a sweet Bus Stop, a tuneful Plaid Tidings, a piercing and edgy Red) with Rebecca Gilman’s The Sweetest Swing in Baseball…which is less about baseball than you’d think. The show, with steady direction from University of Texas at Arlington professor Melanie Mason, has its hits and misses, but there’s plenty of action on this ball field to keep us in the stands (though popcorn would have been nice).
Gilman’s story is a curious take on the up and downsides of fame and celebrity as found in two very different worlds, that of “pro” art and baseball. Painter Dana Fielding (Elizabeth Webb), the gallery circuit’s wonder-child of a few years back, finds her latest show is a bust with critics and the (non) buying public. Shaken and depressed, stung by the doubts of her boyfriend and agents, she lands in a mental facility—and to her surprise, decides she’d like to stay for a while.
But in the all-American way, Dana’s insurance company threatens to toss her out after a 10-day stay; she isn’t crazy enough. To pull off a bit of righteous fraud, she’ll call on the help of two new buddies, cuddly alcoholic Michael (charm-boy Austin Beck) and time-bomb Gary (scary-funny Travis Cook)…and on the spirit of major-league slugger Darryl Strawberry, he of “the sweetest swing” in the game.
Dana, in fact, will tell the doctors (Elizabeth Conly and LisaAnne Haram, capably covering dual roles) that she is Strawberry, whose early career of home runs and MVPs gave way to an era of scandals over drugs and drinking, and then to a later-life Christian reformation. As with Dana, Strawberry faltered under the world’s great expectations—the pressure to keep winning, to keep the golden ball of success spinning in the air.
Naturally, Dana’s doctors don’t buy her re-incarnation, and it’s a spectator sport to see Webb (after some tentative, downbeat early scenes) take Dana’s thin white-girl personality and tweak it with baseball lingo and black-dude slang—not to mention an egregious case of man-spreading on a bench. Her co-conspirators teach her some of the stats and factoids she need to fool the docs. And while there are some uneven spots in these central performances, their chemistry and humor make for some nice triple play.
In fact, it’s in the scheming that The Sweetest Swing comes alive after a somewhat slow start. Gilman doesn’t give us much back-story on Dana’s “natural” state. We know she is depressed, but who was she before the play began? We never learn much—and this question of identity looms larger as she pulls Strawberry’s outsized protective shell close around her. Dana doesn’t seem to miss “herself” at all.
Kevin Brown’s minimal set design—paint-splotched floor and hung squares—is enlivened by tall black panels turned one by one to reveal Pop Art-style paintings by scenic artist Angie Glover, their bright colors spot-lit by lighting designer Kyle Harris. Props and costumes (by Cathy Pritchett and director Mason) are utilitarian but do the job—and Bill Eickenloff’s sound design ends up being a highlight of the production. As scenes move along, he moves through reliable rockers, then loads the bases with catchy audience-participation novelty songs you’d hear, say…at a baseball game. Suddenly the audience is clapping reflexively to the Chicken Dance, reclaiming the moves of Macarena, and…well, you get the idea.
Dana’s emergency switch-hitting is a clever play at a moment of crisis—but quick thinking isn’t all. Gilman asks us to think about the long game, too…and how far any of us might go to get out from under, to pursue a life free of the world’s expectations and demands.
Painting as Strawberry, Dana sets herself free to experiment and play artistically as she hasn’t since her childhood. But who is she now—herself in a clever disguise, or someone who’s begun to believe the delusion? And if the new paintings sell, who cares—and why would she ever turn back?
Gilman offbeat story goes places we don’t expect, like a fly ball hit off a paintbrush—and we’re happy to grab a beer and watch how it all plays out.