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Sunday, 13 January 2013 00:36

The Fire Within

Written by Andrea Braun
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The Fire Within
metrotheatercompany.org

"The Fire Within", a biography of Jackie Robinson (2007) busts the generally accepted image of Robinson as the well-mannered, married, conventional Jackie and paints a portrait of an angry man who Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey urged to use his fury on the playing field, instead of in responding to his treatment by fans and teammates. This is the template Dan Gutman follows in his children’s book, "Jackie and Me", the basis for Steven Dietz’s play.

However, some myths are retained, such as relating an incident where Pee Wee Reese publicly supports Robinson by walking over during a particularly ugly episode of fan behavior and put his arm around the first baseman. If Reese did it at all, it wasn’t in Robinson’s 1947 rookie season, but it does make for a good drama on stage.

The facts aren’t as important here as the message though, since this collaboration between the Edison Theatre and Metro Theater Company is, as always, directed toward young audiences. School children learn the story of Major League Baseball’s integration through the eyes of a boy named Joey Stoshack (played by a man named Kurt Hellerich), a wide-eyed Pittsburgh kid who is mad about baseball, and also just mad. His own baseball coach (David Wassilack) and his mother (Kelley Weber) both chide him about his temper. He is taunted about his ethnic background by Bobby (Adam Moskal), an opposing team’s pitcher, who calls him, among other jibes, a “Polack.” His reaction causes the game to be forfeited.

The next day in school, the teacher assigns oral reports on famous black Americans, and baseball-crazy Joey picks Jackie Robinson off her list. Fortunately, he has a leg up in finding primary sources: He can time travel through baseball cards. The year he needs to reach is 1947, and with the help of a Bond Bread card, he does it. The real surprise is that when he sees his reflection in Branch Rickey’s office window, he is not just 65 years in the past, but he’s also black.

Thus, he gets to experience the kind of real bigotry that dark-skinned people had to deal with in every aspect of their lives: separate housing, restaurants, restrooms, drinking water, etc. One of Joey’s recurring chats with the audience is his marveling, “so this is why we study math (or science or history).” If I remember" my "history correctly, Jim Crow laws were a bit more subtle in the north, so he probably wouldn’t have run into the “white only” fountain in New York City that creates an incident for the newly minted black boy, but again, it’s a quick and dramatic way to make a point, like the Reese gesture.

I’m not clear on a couple of things like why Branch Rickey (Wassilak) walks into his office, finds Joey on the phone, and doesn’t at least ask who he is or how he got in there or anything else logical. Rather, he begins to talk. And talk. Wassilak does more preaching in this show than you’d normally hear in a month of Sundays. Then to add to the incredibility of the story, Joey gets into the clubhouse, and its manager, Ant, (Moskal again) assumes he’s the new “clubhouse boy” and starts assigning him grunt work. Could that have happened? I don’t know, but he’s yet another tormenter to add to a long list of people who bully Joey, no matter his pigmentation.

This is a good looking, well-styled production as directed by Tim Ocel and styled by Rep regulars Scott C. Neale (set design), John Wylie (lights) and Rusty Wandall (sound) with costumes by Lou Bird. Reginald Pierre stands out as the dignified Robinson who does channel his anger at those despicable adult bullies into playing amazing baseball, and Simchah Sharath is believable and sympathetic as his worried wife, Rachel. And I probably shouldn’t care too much about facts if I’m willing to accept that Joey is a reverse Marty McFly. Before Joey leaves, his dad (Jeffrey Awada) who is out of work and separated from his mom, gives him a 1932 Babe Ruth card and Joey does something special with it. Another scheme that provides a baseball subplot doesn’t work out, but you can’t always get what you want, right? That’s a good message too.

Overall, Joey learns a lot from his time in the past, including an inclination to think “WWJD” (What Would Jackie Do?) before he flies off the handle. I think this is a fine show for kids, and that’s exactly what it aims to be.

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