CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 2 . . . . September 16, 2005
Undoubtedly, the best way to enjoy a play is to be a member of the audience or part of the cast. When neither of these opportunities is available, then the play’s script in book form does at least provide static access to a play’s contents. Commissioned by the Manitoba Theatre for Young People and first performed at the CanWest Global Performing Arts Centre in Winnipeg in 2005, The Big League was written by James Durham, a longtime actor and a playwright. In this, his first play for young audiences, Durham has selected a theme with which, unfortunately, too many children and youth can identify - the hockey parent. And while Durham has chosen hockey as his vehicle, youngsters will recognize that parents of that ilk are to found in other sports and athletic activities as well as in the arts [eg. stage mothers].
The play, as originally performed, used four actors to play six roles. Ian and Tommy Smith are father and son, with the latter being a 12-year-old hockey defenseman. The other two “children” are Roy “Deke” Mahovlich, a forward, and Roberta “Bobby” Plante, a goalie. All three are attempting to make the PeeWee Triple A Blades hockey team. The additional two adult characters are a pair of commentators, Ron McKleen and Don Berry, plus Berry’s [puppet] dog, Whitey. Any regular viewer of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada will immediately recognize who this duo really are, and their behaviors in the play parallel their TV personas with Ron being the reasonable peacemaker and Don making the outrageous, over-the-top statements.
Though The Big League is a one act play, the play is divided into scenes with the three team tryout sessions being the principal scenes. During the “intermission” between each “period,” Ron and Don appear to do their shtick, and, when the “game” is still “tied” after three periods, the play goes into “sudden death overtime.” The play opens with Tommy’s recalling what his relationship with his father, vis a vis hockey, used to be like when Tommy was aged three and eight. However, as Tommy notes, “But as I got older my dad started to change: he got way more serious about the game.” Tommy also observes that the father-son relationship had also changed: “It wasn’t like we were a team anymore. It was like my Dad was an owner.” Tommy’s making the Blades team is a step his father sees as being absolutely critical if Tommy ever hopes to play in the NHL. However, Ian’s shouted “instructions” from the stands negatively impact Tommy’s on-ice performance, and Ian’s post game critiques of his son’s play further decrease the sense of fun Tommy had once associated with playing hockey. In what is supposed to be a moment to inspire Tommy, Ian reveals to his son that, as a youth, he had failed to make a Triple A team, and from that experience he had learned a lesson - “don’t play scared, play tough.” At his father’s urging, Tommy begins to play a more aggressive brand of hockey, a style which leads to his almost seriously injuring his friend and teammate Deke. Finally, during “overtime,” Tommy presents his father with an ultimatum: “I’m going to quit playing hockey, even if I make the team. I’ll quit, if you don’t stop yelling at me from the stands.” After some further discussion, Ian finally responds by saying, “I’ve been way out of line. I’m sorry. I promise to be a better fan.”
A bit of a subplot involves the three would-be Blades’ participation in a musical group (see the cover illustration) which eventually they name “The Big League.” Offering a break from the hockey setting, one of these mini-scenes also shows that Tommy has the potential to turn into his father as he criticizes his music mates’ playing. Roberta, aka Bobby, also introduces another side issue when she first removes her goalie mask and Deke expresses surprise that this talented goalie is actually a girl. Roberta makes a point about girls in hockey when she later remarks, “I’m a girl remember, the only girl here. I’ve had to work twice as hard to make every team.”
The script is visually enhanced by a half dozen black and white photographs from the play’s Winnipeg performance.
A fan of theatre and hockey, Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children’s and YA literature in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.