Graney hits one over fence with ‘Honus’

By Chris Jones
July 30, 2007
Chicago Tribune

By almost every account, Honus Wagner — Ogden Nash’s “Bowlegged Beauty” — was the romantic ideal of the ballplayer. Peerless on the turn-of-the-century diamond, he’s widely regarded as the greatest shortstop ever. Yet off the field, he was modest, friendly, solicitous of fans, disdainful of excessive financial reward and the embodiment of personal integrity. The sportswriter Arthur Daley called him “Lincolnesque.”

The late Wagner is, then, the perfect candidate for a show in which a young, contemporary boy — struggling with both his parents and his swing — gets taken back to a time when a ballplayer always had an hour or two to help a budding adolescent learn how to be a man. Perhaps that was a mythical time, but then almost all baseball literature and drama plays the beautiful game as a boyhood dreamscape. In many ways, Steven Dietz’s 80-minute “Honus and Me” is not so different from “Field of Dreams” or “Angels in the Outfield” or the myriad other summer romances in which other-worldly intervention helps baseball change a young man’s life. But that doesn’t diminish its potency. Sean Graney’s effort for the Chicago Children’s Theatre makes for a warm and appealing show — one that might actually attract that rare combo of fathers and sons to the theater, but surely would be just as pleasing for baseball-loving mothers and daughters.

Graney’s production at the Goodman Theatre comes with quite a bit of sophistication. The designer Todd Rosenthal has built an iconic little ballpark at one end of the Owen Theatre — replete with period advertisement, ivy and big banks of lights that ignite with one of those dramatic “schloops” emanating from the sound booth. The show comes with a seventh-inning stretch and is preceded by actors and audience tossing around a ball. And the mostly Equity cast digs quite deep to find these characters. Eric Slater folds himself warmly into Honus. Tim Rock understands his Joey is a boy. And as Joey’s dad, Sean Cooper shows us one of those moving pictures of a regular guy: imperfect, sure, but always doing his best for his boy.

Despite the mostly melodramatic nature of the story, Dietz is no hack. His script (an adaptation of Dan Gutman’s novel) doesn’t pander to the audience or deliver the fully happy ending we’re all expecting. And while it’s surely accessible and involving for the 7- to 12-year-old set, it’s also sufficiently smart and fresh to keep all butts cheerfully attached to the bleachers (well, box seats really).

Graney’s production is by far the best show the Children’s Theatre has done to date. For the first time in its short history, frankly, this new group has hit that tough, sweet spot between truthful and sophisticated production values that treat youngsters as the thinking, sophisticated theater-goers they surely are, and a fun show that feels as though it really is for kids (as distinct from the kind of thing that adults think should be for kids).

Among his many other talents as a director, Graney can be a goofball. His actors are free to play. And when everyone is unafraid of a little silliness, the kids in the audience can take ownership. At the preview I saw on Thursday, you could see them leaning forward even as the adults leaned back to let them go.