Twenty years after the big game, Phil and James, Tom and George have gathered at the home of their high school basketball coach.
“Lean and mean, that’s how I want my boys,” the coach says as he enters the room, blows a whistle and kiddingly suggests the guys run laps.
Soon all these characters are reminiscing about the time there were 10 seconds left on the clock, and thanks to the final basket sunk by a teammate named Martin, they won the 1952 state championship against a school “three times our size.”
It sounds as if it’s starting out as a friendly, nostalgic reunion. But this is the late playwright/actor/director Jason Miller’s “That Championship Season,” and many troubling revelations — at least one pertaining to the conspicuously absent Martin — are bubbling toward the surface.
“These are flawed guys,” said Adam Randis, who is directing the show through May 26 for the Pennsylvania Theatre of Performing Arts in Hazleton. “They are stunted men-children and they look to (the coach) as much as they ever did.”
So, what kind of influence is the coach?
“He’s a lousy person,” said Bob Taylor, of Carbondale, who has that role. “He’s a racist and a bigot, and a red baiter.”
“The pictures on the wall will show you,” Randis said. “He’s got one of Teddy Roosevelt — that’s OK — and a poster of Joe McCarthy; he thinks he was a great man.”
Students of 1950s history will know Sen. Joseph McCarthy accused many people, from government employees to Hollywood performers, of having communist sympathies, which damaged reputations and ruined careers.
Coincidentally the coach, who’s been advising George as the younger man runs for reelection as mayor, seems to think George’s best campaign strategy in 1972 is to spread the word that his opponent had a relative who was a Communist.
“Nobody knows or cares about his dead Communist uncle,” the character Phil declares.
So, is Phil a voice of reason?
Not really. He’s “a sleazy business-type who does some very questionable things,” Tom Tomeo, of Scranton, described the character he plays.
Phil also has a penchant for extramarital affairs, including a recent one with George’s wife, which James feels compelled to reveal to George.
“There’s so much going on, with friendships and betrayals,” Taylor said.
“There’s a part of me,” Tomeo said, “that would like to slap the taste out of all their mouths.”
Audiences will see some slapping before the play ends, Randis said.
They’ll also meet characters whose lives haven’t turned out so well — like James Daley,who struggles to support his family and to endure his frustrating job as a school principal. “He spent years taking care of his alcoholic father,” said Matt Bubel, of Tresckow, who plays James. ” Now he looks after his alcoholic younger brother.”
Younger brother Tom Daley “had a hard experience of the real world and now he’s got a jaded outlook on life. He’s a little cynical,” said Tim Solarek, of Freeland, who plays Tom.
“I don’t think he ever came out and said it, but it’s kind of understood,” Randis said, “that the younger brother, the alcoholic who comments on everyone’s foibles,” represents Miller.
And the setting of this play, which won a Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award and New York Drama Critics Circle Award, hearkens back to the playwright’s Lackawanna County hometown.
“Oh, it’s Scranton,” Taylor said. “We even say we have to go to Old Forge for beer.”
“We printed Schlitz labels,” Randis said, because that’s the brand specified in the script.
The play also originally called for smoking, but that isn’t part of this production. “We’re not allowed to in this building,” Randis said.
“There’s enough drinking going on; we don’t need smoking,” said Christopher Snyder, of Sugarloaf, who plays George.
Lackluster politician George, whose official problems have included how to dispose of a dead elephant, believes he’s never achieved anything like his high school glory.
“My character says it right in the beginning,” Snyder said, “I’m prouder of that championship game than of being mayor.”
Although it’s been 20 years since their big game, members of a 1952 high school basketball game are still taking advice from their coach, played by Bob Taylor of Carbondale, center. The rest of the cast of ‘That Championship Season’ includes Thomas Tomeo of Scranton, Christopher Snyder of Sugarloaf, Matt Bubel of Tresckow and Tim Solarek of Freeland.
The former basketball players and their coach indulge in some celebratory drinking during their reunion in the play ‘That Championship Season,’ which runs this weekend and next at the J.J. Ferrara Center in Hazleton.