One of the perks of writing theater reviews is that on rare occasions, one is privileged to watch the birth of a powerful new drama. Such a drama is Halftime With Don, currently being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
Playwright Ken Weitzman’s play centers on Don Devers, a pro football lineman who became an attorney when his playing days were over. Although retaining much of his youthful strength, Don’s body is ravaged by injuries obtained during his sports career. Even worse, he has suffered brain damage from playing football, which is increasingly robbing him of his memory and his self-control.
Having become a recluse, Don has even refused to see his pregnant daughter, Stephanie. Into his life comes Ed, his biggest fan, who has looked up to Dan his whole life for his strength and sportsmanship on the field. The relationship formed between Ed and Don affect both their lives in ways they could not have imagined.
Weitzman is a gifted writer, one whose works deserve production and appreciation, and he has crafted a solid play. He depicts the tragedy of mental decline from the point of view of the sufferer, aware of his decline and terrified of the inevitable. He shows the effect of memory loss and the onset of dementia, without descending into mawkishness or cliché, on the people closest to the sufferer. This is blended with the protective nature of parents — Stephanie for her unborn child; Ed and his wife, Sara, who are expecting their firstborn; and even Don for Stephanie — and the creation of family based on mutual love, respect, and caring. Added into this mixture is earthy, raunchy humor that is never out of place and never forced.
The value of this script has been fully realized by director Kent Nicholson, who draws outstanding ensemble work and strong individual performances from the cast of four. Lori Vega crackles as Stephanie, who makes a last-ditch effort to pull her father from his self-imposed isolation by instigating the meeting between him and his biggest fan. Susan Maris, who plays Ed’s wife, Sara, shows her humanity in her loving support of her husband and her camaraderie with Stephanie, while discovering some new pleasures for herself in a short, hilarious scene. Dan McVey ably conveys Ed’s emotional journey from starry-eyed hero worship to a more adult respect of the man, the flawed human being, who was his role model through a lonely childhood.
“Outstanding” does not begin to convey the magnitude of Malachy Cleary’s performance as Don. With Weitzman’s script, under Nicholson’s direction. Cleary creates a fully fleshed, living, breathing human being. His performance shows us this proud man, remembering the triumphs of his careers in sports and in the law; all too aware of the physical toll playing football has cost; and resolved to make one last gesture to give meaning to his life. The clear insight Cleary gives us into Don’s inner mental turmoil through his split-second emotional changes and dangerous use of his physical strength leave a powerful impression on the audience, creating a memorable performance.
The New Jersey Repertory Company has, in its 20 seasons of existence, produced over 100 productions. It is to the credit of Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas and Executive Producer Gabor Barabas that this play was chosen to hold its world premiere by this company. If you want to see a powerful work of theater with strong writing, directing, and acting, you must go down to Long Branch to see Halftime With Don.
Halftime With Don is being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company at the Lumia Theatre in Long Branch through July 30. For tickets and information, visit njrep.org.
Note: The New Jersey Repertory Company recently purchased a defunct school in Long Branch, and is in the process of converting the 28,000-square-foot space into a multifaceted arts center. Plans for the center include two intimate theaters, an art cinema, an art museum, a rooftop café, classrooms, studios, and living space for actors, directors, and playwrights. This October, a weeklong arts festival, with the theme “All About Eve,” will be held at the center, featuring live music, poetry, art and photography exhibitions, food and drink, and an astonishing 28 plays written especially for the festival. Sponsors and contributors are being sought. The New Jersey Repertory Company is a 501(c)(3) corporation, so all donations are tax-deductible. For more, visit njrep.org.