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Jackie and Me

In the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, there are plaques commemorating the greatest to ever play the game. Many of the numbers that these players wore have been retired by their respective teams; but, there is only one number that has been retired by every team and graces the confines of every Major League Baseball park: 42.

(Left to right) Michael Santo as Branch Rickey, William Oliver Watkins as Jackie Robinson, and Kristen Adele as Rachel Robinson
(L to R) Michael Santo as Branch Rickey,
William Oliver Watkins as Jackie Robinson,
and Kristen Adele as Rachel Robinson
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
As any baseball fan can tell you, that was Jackie Robinson's number. Robinson was not only a great baseball player (and an even a greater athlete), he was an exceptional human being. When Brooklyn Dodger President and General Manager Branch Rickey decided to sign Robinson and make him the first African-American to play in the big leagues, he picked the right man.

In the process of negotiating a contract, Rickey made a deal with Robinson: no matter what happened, no matter the depravity of the insults and physical abuse, Robinson would not retaliate.

Robinson kept to that promise and the rest is history.

Aaron M. Davidson as Joey and Diana Dresser as Mom
Aaron M. Davidson as Joey
and Diana Dresser as Mom
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
It takes a special kind of person to agree to set the bar this high and stick to it. Robinson paid a price for sublimating a heavy dose of abuse from many players and fans, but what he and Rickey did was arguably the third most important race relations event in U.S. history, after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the integration of the armed services.

In Steven Dietz' adaptation of Dan Gutman's book, Joey Stoshack (Aaron M. Davidson), a young boy with a special gift for time-travelling, goes back to 1947 to witness Robinson's historic debut. In the process, he experiences racism first hand. Davidson is effervescent as the baseball-obsessed adolescent, his enthusiasm quickly becoming our own, as we get to meet Rickey (Michael Santo), Robinson (William Oliver Watkins), and a number of other notable ballplayers, including Babe Ruth (Santo), PeeWee Reese (Justin Walvoord), Dixie Walker (John M. Jurcheck), Eddie Stankey (Leigh Nichols Miller), and Ben Chapman (Ryan Wuestewald).

Watkins is a commanding presence and pillar of strength as Robinson, bringing gravity to the wisdom that he shares with Joey regarding tolerance and emotional temperance. Although the piece is ostensibly targeted to adolescents and teenagers, it's really for all ages, particularly given how race is used by the powers that be to divide and distract the masses around the globe.

Timothy McCracken as Dad and Aaron M. Davidson as Joey
Timothy McCracken as Dad
and Aaron M. Davidson as Joey
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Joey's parents, Mom (Diana Dresser) and Dad (Timothy McCracken), are both in on Joey's secret: his ability to use an old-time baseball card to go back in time, and a contemporary baseball card—Rockies star, Carlos Gonzales—to return. We applaud the use of magical realism in the service of a great baseball tale! Baseball has a natural affinity with such serendipity, e.g., William Bendix served as the Yankee batboy during Ruth's tenure and later played Ruth in the bio pic, or Alvin Dark saying, in 1963, that "They'll put a man on the moon before he (Gaylord Perry) hits a home run," and then Perry hitting his first home run (July 20, 1969) one hour after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on Earth's satellite.

Dresser and McCracken both connect strongly with Davidson, even as we feel the intensity of their estrangement as Mom and Dad. Dresser is also a hoot as Mrs. Herskowitz, a Brooklyn shopkeeper, while McCracken also has a field day as the Delivery Man and the Home Plate Umpire. We would be remiss if we did not mention that while Joey is a Dodgers fan, Dad wears a Yankees cap and his most cherished possession is a Babe Ruth baseball card (What a fantasy fulfillment for McCracken, a died-in-wool Bronx Bombers fan!).

Aaron M. Davidson as Joey and Michael Santo as Babe Ruth
Aaron M. Davidson as Joey
and Michael Santo as Babe Ruth
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
And where would we be without Branch Rickey, the man who challenged the unwritten rule that kept many of the game's greatest players out of the limelight? Santo is a delightful combination of bluster, wisdom, and kindness as his Rickey guides Robinson and befriends Joey. He shines in a number of other roles as well, but, in particular, his voice work as the dying Babe Ruth is haunting.

Joey and Robinson each deal with a variety of antagonists, most of whom are played by Ryan Wuestewald, both as a kid (Bobby Fuller), as an adult (Ben Chapman), and in-between (Ant). Wuestewald swiftly gets our blood to boil, connecting us with the victims of racist attacks and epithets.

William Oliver Watkins as Jackie Robinson
William Oliver Watkins
as Jackie Robinson
Photo: Jennifer M Koskinen
Joey's teacher (Mrs. Levitt) and Robinson's wife (Rachel), both played by Kristen Adele, are, by far, the most sympathetic and supportive characters; Adele does great work exuding these heartfelt qualities. Justin Walvoord, John M. Jurcheck, and Leigh Nichols Miller are terrific as the young sandlot players and the Dodgers and Phillies veterans.

Director Stephen Weitz keeps the action moving swiftly and intelligently around the circular Space Theatre, which is decked out, by scenic designer Lisa M. Orzolek, with various architectural appointments from Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium, as well as a floor filled with giant-sized vintage baseball cards depicting many Hall of Fame honorees.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's presentation of Steven Dietz' Jackie and Me runs through December 22nd. For tickets: 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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