Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Assassin: A Gripping Tale of Morality, Choice and Redemption

By Christine Facciolo

You don’t have to be a football fanatic to appreciate the Delaware Theatre Company’s production of Playing the Assassin.

That’s because Playing the Assassin isn’t really about football — per se.

Playing the Assassin by David Robson.
Photo courtesy of Delaware Theatre Company.
Still there’s plenty of up-close body-slamming action in the form of a spirited — and sometimes disturbing — debate about sports ethics, morality, choice, responsibility, family, race and just about anything else the play’s two characters care to toss into one intermission-less act of conversation/altercation.

The work by Wilmington-based playwright David Robson premiered last year at Rockland County, New York’s Penguin Repertory Theatre under the direction of Joe Brancato, who reprises those duties here in Delaware as do other members of his team, including actors Ezra Knight and Garrett Lee Hendricks.

Knight turns in a gripping performance as Frank, a now-retired football legend whose dirty on-the-field tactics earned him the nickname “The Assassin” and who was responsible for inflicting a devastating in-game injury on an opposing player, rendering him paralyzed from the neck down.

The action takes place in a modern yet not-quite-five-star hotel suite in downtown Chicago. Frank has been flown in by a segment producer from CBS Sports for a much-hyped pre-Super Bowl sit-down with the player he injured years ago.

Robson bases the plot on a real-life incident. During a 1978 pre-season game, Oakland Raider Jack Tatum plowed into New England Patriot Darryl Stingley rendering him a quadriplegic. The two men never spoke again. The incident became a symbol of violence in football, tainting Tatum’s legacy right up to his death in 2010. (The incident was prominently displayed in the headline to his obituary.)

Playing the Assassin is the product of Robson’s musings about what might have taken place if the two players had met and attempted a reconciliation.

Hendricks plays Lewis, the suited-up, buttoned-down, eager-to-please (if somewhat green) producer charged with convincing Frank to sign a contract for the no-holds-barred interview which is to include an apology. Lewis seems a bit too interested in the details of the accident, the reason for which comes through later in the play. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game between the vainglorious Frank and the persistent Lewis, culminating in a demonstration of Frank’s tackling prowess which turns shockingly violent.

Frank grows increasingly suspicious of Lewis, accusing him of lying about the other party’s willingness to participate in the interview. In the midst of it all, we learn that Frank has written his memoirs which make no mention of the tragic incident that captured international media attention.

Both actors manage worthy and durable performances as their characters evolve through a series of striking revelations and twists of fate that at times seem strained and contrived.

Knight is a standout in the meatier of the two roles. He deftly combines the swagger of his past glory with the stark reality of his diminished physicality and a deep-seated guilt and anger over an incident that has shadowed him and tainted his legacy.

Hicks initially presents Lewis an affable production assistant but gradually blends in a hostility that presages a deep-seated resentment and belligerence.

Robson does not directly address some of the weightier issues facing football today, namely, fan complicity in the glorification of gridiron violence and the league’s failure to prepare players — especially injured players — for life after the big leagues.

But then, Robson didn’t set out to write a play about football. Just a story about two men who at the sound of the two-minute warning need to make a play for redemption before the clock runs out.

Playing The Assassin runs at Delaware Theatre Company through November 8.

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