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That Championship Season

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This is creepy but as a child I was obsessed with The Exorcist. Both the book and the movie occupied my pre-teen years and I absorbed every bit of info I could. So I knew that Jason Miller, who played Father Karras, was the son-in-law of Jackie Gleason. (He later became the estranged father of actor Jason Patric.) And I knew that Miller had won a 1973 Pulitzer for his play That Championship Season.

But how obsessed was I really if I never actually saw the play until now, courtesy of the Playhouse Rep Company. In my defense, I will say that this is the first area production in more than two decades ... and that's amazing because That Championship Season is one hell of a great play.

Set in '72, the play depicts the reunion of high school basketball players whose team won the state championship 20 years earlier. Four of them visit the house of their recently hospitalized coach to recollect and relive. The evening soon becomes the dredging-up of secrets, and by the end, the gulf between what the team believes is true and the actual truth is a chasm. It may be an old-fashioned set-up but, as Miller forcefully shows, it can produce a shower of dramatic fireworks.

But the play is not just an exercise in dramaturgy. Miller's goal is nothing less than placing on stage America -- in all its racist, xenophobic, rage-filled, hate-spewing venality. The nostalgia-infused glory of the 1950s has gone; it's a new era in America and these vile, hate-filled men are revealed for what they are.

And that's what I find most amazing of all -- how incredibly relevant the play remains. I've spent the past several months in disgusted horror obsessively watching the right wing's hate erupt in full, hideous bloom. It's not much of a leap from The Exorcist to Fox News. And it's jaw-dropping how Miller looked at America in 1972 and saw, lurking underneath, Rush, Hannity, O'Reilly and Beck.

On Michael Thomas Essad's stunning set, Ronald Allan-Lindblom directs a tight ensemble through this acid-etched blueprint of a play. Though the end fizzles out, for the rest of the evening you know you don't want to watch anything other than Jarrod DiGiorgi, Philip Winters, David Cabot, Daryll Heysham and Robert Haley strut their considerable stuff.

It's even better than The Exorcist.

 

That Championship Season continues through Sun., Sept. 20. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com

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