The Bank Street Players are running the world-premiere of an original play, Called, at the Princess Theatre, through tomorrow, 24 September.  This is a wonderful, cozy evening with Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.  The audience settles in across the table from Coach, as he relaxes in his hunting lodge in front of a fire, and thinks back on his life.  It’s a reverie, complete with dream sequences of his past and visitors from his present, as he muses on life events, and passes along some of the philosophy that made him one of the winningest college football coaches in history.

The script, an original by local Chuck Puckett, is phenomenal.  If you bleed Crimson, this is a show you cannot miss.  If you aren’t a Tide fan, it’s still a great introduction to the legendary coach (I admit to being a recent transplant to northern Alabama, who hasn’t quite caught the bug, but I left the theatre a huge admirer of the man).  Auburn fans may squirm a bit from time to time, but among the folks who stop by to visit with Coach, is Pat Dye, so even the War Eagle colors make an appearance.  Puckett does a nice job of showing both the positives and negatives about the man, and leaving you in awe of the individual.

Lauren Cantrell-Salerno has done a very nice job directing within the constraints of the script.  She successfully creates the memory sequences in downstage pools of light, and builds interesting stage pictures throughout.   Unfortunately, since most of the 90-minute one-act consists of Coach just talking to the audience, that makes for a LOT of lines to learn–a challenge for even an experienced actor–and Norman Roby isn’t quite up to the task.  A tablet has been artfully hidden behind some clutter on the table, to prompt him with his lines, but this does leash him in place, and limit how animated and mobile the Coach can be.  While it is reasonable for Bear to be quiet and introspective for much of the evening, the performance needed some different emotional levels, just to provide some dramatic variation (there is a difference between “realism” and “dramatic realism”).  There are a number of times when Coach could have displayed some passion, while he relived some of those glory moments, but given that Roby is reading his lines, his relatively monotone delivery is understandable.  That said, knowing that this is effectively Roby’s first time on stage ever, he truly does an admirable job of getting through the evening, and keeping things relaxed and easy for the audience.

Otherwise, the performances are quite nice, with some true stand-outs among the ensemble of supporting cast members.  Corby Holland, as “Joe Namath”; Nate Gillikin, as “Ken Stabler”; and Melissa McMahan, as Bear Bryant’s wife, “Mary Harmon Bryant”, are all superlative, and bring some real life to the stage.  Elaine Hubbard, as Bear’s mother, “Ida Mae Bryant”, does a fine job with her touching book-end moments to the production.

The technical elements work well.  Chuck Puckett’s set is simple, but it fits perfectly with the other-worldly feel to this memory play.  The lighting, by Lauren Salerno and Penny Linville, is exactly what is needed.  The microphone balances, and occasional sound effects, are all well handled by Billy Carpenter.  Matthew Hennigan’s slide show on the back wall is a bit lost, unfortunately, because the images aren’t quite bright enough to really be useful.  Perhaps because the audience is looking through the brightest-lit portion of the stage to see the screen, we can’t perceive much more than whether the individuals are wearing football uniforms or not.

Overall, this is a really good evening of theatre.  Anyone interested at all in this icon of American football, should absolutely make the trip over to the Princess theatre in Decatur.  Shows are running tonight and tomorrow (Saturday) at 7 PM, with a matinee tomorrow at 2.  Ticket information and show details can be found at this link.

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