With major league baseball mired in steroid scandals these days, probably the last thing the game needs is a controversy over gay athletes. But as Richard Greenberg’s baseball drama Take Me Out suggests, it’s only a matter of time before a player comes out of the closet—and baseball, that great American sport, will one day have to make room for players of every stripe, no matter their ethnic background or sexual preference.
Currently onstage in a regional premiere at Middle Tennessee State University, Greenberg’s carefully crafted play was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize three years ago, and it’s easy to see why it attracted such attention. It exploits an issue of potential controversy, but more importantly, it’s a cannily written, tightly constructed three-acter filled with sophisticated humor, rich dramatic moments and clever staging ideas, most all of which are successfully realized by director Deborah Anderson and her student cast of 11.
Darren Lemming (Josh Proctor) is the mixed-race centerfielder for the New York Empires. (Yes, you can read “Yankees” into that, if you choose.) He’s brash, likable, eminently gifted. In fact, he’s so confident of himself that he’s almost completely unfazed when his sexual preference for other men becomes public knowledge. His teammates’ mixed reaction to the news stays pretty much under the radar for a while, until the team, in the midst of a hotly contested pennant race, brings up a fireballing reliever from the minors named Shane Mungitt (Jordan Turman).
Theatergoing baseball fans will connect the dots here, as Mungitt, a white Southern kid with somewhat neanderthal social skills, seems based at least loosely on former Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker, who made headlines in 1999 after unleashing some disparaging comments about the ethnic character of New York City. In this case, Mungitt goes public with his disdain for “faggots and coloreds,” creating more clubhouse tension and forcing Lemming to deal with his personal issue in the media spotlight.
With a clear eye toward accessibility, Greenberg keeps politics out of the picture in his drama, which emerges more strongly as a play of character and feelings rather than a pitch piece for gay rights. Human acceptance is the motivating theme here, and the author’s use of the easily identifiable contemporary baseball world, with its multiethnic face, makes for a shrewd and entertaining setup.
There’s strong language throughout the production, but it’s never gratuitous. There’s also locker-room nudity—and, with young college-age men onstage, the potential for leering. Fortunately, set designer Scott Boyd has brilliantly covered all bases, so to speak. Besides providing a marvelous baseball diamond that dominates center-stage, he uses the Tucker Theatre’s rigging system to fly in locker-room and shower set pieces that offer an appropriately discreet way of staging the nude scenes.
Director Anderson paces the action with a subtle speed that leaves suspense deliciously hanging in the air at the two intermission breaks. Her cast is equally admirable. Standouts are Proctor, who looks like a true athelete in his uniform and serves up the proper swaggering attitude; Chris Ford as an articulate, caring teammate who handles a lot of the play’s narrative patches; and Turman, who takes on the tough, inherently repellent role of Mungitt and manages to wring eventual pathos out of it. Best of all is William C. Fancher, who, as Lemming’s nerdy business manager, delivers nearly romantic speeches about his growing love of baseball and its wholly American, metaphorically democratic aptness.