by Gail M. Burns, July 2006.

What an amusing and gentle bit of summer fun Rounding Third is. This tale of two very different men struggling to get along as the coach and assistant coach of the Little League team on which both of their sons play is consistently funny and has only the briefest of flirtations with the maudlin self-revelation playwrights often feel compelled to insert into such yarns.

Don (Jim Frangione) has been coaching this team for years. He’s a blue collar guy with a competitive edge. Don likes to win. While we hear him yelling at his players he is not abusive and shows real insight into the challenges the kids face off the field.

Michael (Tom O’Brien) is new to baseball and to coaching. He gets involved to spend more time with his twelve-year-old stepson, who is the team’s weak link. The revelation that Michael was a picked on geek, the kid who was always picked last for the team, comes as no surprise. O’Brien shows us the overly sensitive and shy kid Michael was underneath his preppy-looking young executive adult exterior.

Don instantly hates Michael, and Michael instantly fears Don. It is a classic Felix-and-Oscar Old Couple Made in Hell comedy premise, and it works because playwright Richard Dresser keeps the game of baseball front and center. Except for the opening scene in a local bar, Don and Michael meet only on the ball field during practices and games.

We never see the kids on the team, but playwright Richard Dresser paints clear pictures of them: Philip, who won’t tie his shoelaces (he’s “resistant to double knots” according to Michael); Eric, Don’s son, who opts off of the team before the championships to appear in Brigadoon; overweight Rusty; Michael’s stepson Frankie who perpetually drops the ball and bursts into tears; Timmy, whose mother is quite the flirt; Timor, who never remembers to get in “ready position;” Tito, and Kaheel.

Don espouses the time honored mantra “Winning is Everything” while Michael spouts feel-good philosophy about “just having fun” and “doing the best you can.” Through the course of the play each comes to understand a little bit more where the other one is coming from, but there is no dramatic character shift in either man. At the final curtain it is evident that their paths will probably never cross again, that this one losing season is all that they will ever share.

Dresser wrote this play from personal experience, and it is definitely funnier if you have been personally involved in youth sports yourself. There was a young man sitting in front of me with his parents and it was obvious that the whole family was having a wonderful laughing at accurate representations of all-too-familiar people and experiences from the Little League field. What a great family outing! A play parents can enjoy with their 10-15 year olds is a rare thing to find. Rounding Third may not be a Pulitzer Prize-winner, but it is certainly entertaining light fare for a warm summer’s evening.

Frangione and O’Brien are perfectly cast and both deliver believable, funny, and ultimately moving performances. Michael Dowling has directed with a light touch. There are definite whiffs of Charlie Brown’s bedraggled baseball team and the bittersweet angst and agony of childhood competition. We adults may put on a brave front, but we all know how very close the child within us is to the surface, and how those childhood failures and successes can return all of a sudden and sweep us away in a violent flood of emotions.

The adults who are courageous enough to mentor young people in academics, sports, or the arts are very important people. You get the feeling that Don and Michael will both be coaches whose influence the kids will remember for years to come.

Steven Mitchell has designed a spare set representing a corner of the ball field. There is a long bench, giving Frangione and O’Brien plenty of space to sit together but not too close together, the ubiquitous chain-link fence, and a raised bed of dusty soil that the men kick and throw at the appropriately heated moments in the games and practices. Backing the set is a lighted cyclorama which allows lighting designer Lara Dubin a chance to indicate changes in the hour and weather. Costume designer Bethany Marx has done a nice job of dressing Don and Michael in average guy clothes that telegraph volumes about each man’s life, lifestyle, and frame of mind.

There are a few four letter words in Rounding Third but I bet you would hear worse at a real ballpark. Don and Mike do discuss their marriages and touch on a few private matters, but again, you can hear worse on your average soap opera any day of the week. I see no reason why kids ten and up, especially those who play T-Ball or Little League or Babe Ruth Baseball, wouldn’t enjoy this show immensely.

Rounding Third runs July 19-30 at the Chester Theatre Company. The show runs an hour and forty-five minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-354-7771.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006

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