Theater Review: The Great Leap
The new production at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo centers on a historic basketball game between China and the United States in 1989. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.
Although playwright Lauren Yee’s script for “The Great Leap” is, at first glance, about the sport of basketball, the real action is the human drama that unfolds on and off the hardwood half-court that serves as the intimate setting for this intriguing story.
In the process, this production delivers some captivating performances and lucid insights into the values of each character in its four-person ensemble.
Actor Ming Wu portrays the energetic and relentless Manford, a talented Chinese-American sharp-shooting point guard, hell-bent on joining a San Francisco University team bound for a “friendship game” against China.
Ming Wu is believable as he convinces the skeptical veteran coach Saul, played by Jason Grubbe, to let him lead the team’s efforts against a larger Chinese squad.
The play’s action is punctuated by flashbacks to 1971 during China’s Cultural Revolution. Here and later, Saul’s Chinese translator, Wen Chang, is played by Richard Manera in a convincing and nuanced performance. He shows us the coach and apparatchik who survives within the Chinese government by walking a fine line between obeying the Party line and his own conscience.
After a newspaper photograph that belonged to Manford’s late mother, a Chinese immigrant, is revealed, his real motives for joining the team trip to Beijing emerge.
Zhanna Albertini as Connie, Manford’s concerned Chinese American friend, is an effective messenger as she confronts coach Saul with uncomfortable truths about the possible parentage and explosive nature of his newly acquired star player.
The production’s shortcomings center primarily around the character of Saul.
During the invited dress preview I saw last Thursday, the actor portraying Saul experienced numerous line difficulties that generated timing issues in scenes containing rapid-fire exchanges.
The results inhibited these scenes from achieving their desired effect. Given a capable cast, however, this show will hopefully find its footing during its run.
A troublesome area for the character of Saul is his constant use of vitriolic profanities. Though playwright Yee’s over-the-top use of four-letter words is meant to be humorous and show us the gruff exterior that conceals a caring person underneath, it falls short of its purpose.
As a reviewer, I’ve heard every cringeworthy expletive and description of the human anatomy possible in the theatre. Usually these are employed in creative ways supporting both character and action. In this instance however, I need to call a technical foul.
Despite these stumbles along the way, the production ultimately provides powerful and satisfying resolutions for each of four characters.
Credit director Helen Young for staging that generates thought-provoking perspectives on the events occurring in and around the brutal suppression of protests at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Included are projections of the mass of students assembled outside Wen Chang’s apartment overlooking the square. As Wen Chang looks out his window, he considers his choices related to Manford, basketball, the People’s Republic of China, and his own fate.
The play’s final moment is a stunning iconic visual image well worth waiting for. Wen Chang becomes the final piece of an international jig-saw puzzle, as he literally steps into one of the Twentieth Century’s most famous photographs. As he does, “The Great Leap” provides its audience with a plausible narrative for a story that captured the world’s imagination.