Kirby Puckett's descent into ill repute and his early demise were the stuff of deep tragedy. He rose from humble roots, performed acts of staggering baseball virtuosity, then was felled by fate (in the form of glaucoma) and subsequently brought low by the failings of his character. Those of us who didn't know him, but thought we cared about him, yearned for insight, some bridge across the chasm between what Kirby was and what he wanted us to believe about him.
With only momentary exceptions, Syl Jones's new Kirby delivers precious little. The lights rise on an almost entirely superfluous first act with a generic Coach (Terry E. Bellamy) philosophizing on baseball's superiority to real life (each game starts with a clean slate, the score restored to zero). Bellamy is called upon to recite a great deal more sports blather throughout the evening, and if the point is that athletic rhetoric is facile and numbingly inadequate for the complexities of existence, it's driven home. Again and again.
Next is a dramatization of the 911 call after Kirby suffered his stroke, followed by Puck himself (Ansa Akyea) in a sort of neurological in-between zone in which he is compelled to relive the major plot points of his life. We get disjointed scenes of Kirby obsessing over baseball as a youth, questioning his paternity, and working his way up through the minors until his debut with the Twins.
It's disappointingly simplistic and often tiresome. One mini-scene bleeds limply into the next, any momentum leeched out by a torrent of clichéd dialogue (sample: "Don't ever be afraid of your dreams." Oh yeah? Well, don't be afraid to chase rainbows, either). During Kirby's ascent, a coach says of him, "I think this kid is the real deal." Show 'em what you're made of, while you're at it.
The first act ends so abruptly one almost suspects that someone backstage had seen enough and cut the power. And after the intermission, a scene in which Kirby courts his wife-to-be (Shá Cage) while calling timeouts to consult with Coach suggests that this drama has become more endurance contest than interpretive biography.
Fortunately, things get better. Once Kirby's career is over and he is adrift, we at least see the outlines of something approaching an actual dramatic character (rather than a reactive cutout). Kirby's philanthropy is depicted as a mix of self-serving and genuine. He's also shown as a thorough disappointment in both his marriage and his affairs (Michelle Hutchison plays a part billed as "Kirby's Mistress(es)," though as written she largely serves to hector him and add another layer of mystery: Was the guy a masochist to boot?)
But Jones deserves credit for one ballsy move: laying out the notion in stark terms that Kirby the ballplayer and Kirby the private man were two entirely different people (toward the end Akyea argues with himself on a video screen, the younger Kirby gloating and jeering at the older model). It's a tough idea to take, even now. Yet if we hope to glean some sense of what Kirby was hiding from us, we'll have to look someplace other than this tepid, scattershot, and superficial work.
When Cephus Miles (Payton J. Woodson) contemplates the various woes that afflicted his life (prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam, pre-Civil Rights racism, the bottle) in Samm-Art Williams's drama Home, he concludes that the Almighty hasn't entirely forsaken him, but has instead been vacationing in Miami. Cephus's ship finally comes in, and by then we've been so drawn into Woodson's country-boy performance that we barely begrudge the unlikelihood of his windfall.
Jamila Anderson and Sonja Parks very ably play a succession of roles, ranging from little girls to elderly women, as women who orbit Cephus during his life. Parks is most affecting as Cephus's young sweetheart who does him wrong. By the end, the play is a sort of elegy to the lost innocence of rural life, the "dead promises of the wonderland." It's also an affecting character study that transfixes with an idiosyncratic and often poetic sensibility, finely evoked by Woodson as a guy who you keep hoping will catch a break.