On the stage

'The Great One' recalls Clemente through the eyes of a female reporter

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"The Great One" of the title refers to Pittsburgh's great one, Pirate Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente. He helped the team win the 1971 World Series and was named series MVP. In 1972, he smacked his 3,000th hit and on New Year's Eve of that year he died in a plane crash while on a charitable mission.

He was a hero to many Pittsburgh children, including Molly, the protagonist of the one-woman play by Shaler native Russ Babines. Like the playwright and his friends, Molly is a local girl who grew up a Pirates and particularly a Clemente fan before moving to New York, where she works as a sports writer. Her return for the funeral of a childhood friend sparks nostalgia for bonds forged and broken in one memorable year, as a 12-year-old in 1971.

'The Great One'
Where: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company, 937 Liberty Ave., 3rd floor, Downtown.
When: Friday through March 15. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets: $21; www.pghplaywrights.com.

Tressa Glover plays Molly as an adult and a youngster, and takes on the characters of two neighborhood boys as well. She was recently seen as a basketball coach and her younger self in "Charles Ives Take Me Home," so it would seem that she's the go-to actress when the role calls for a woman and sports.

"I'm just going to make my way through the sports, one at a time," she said, laughing.

Her parents emphasized a "well-roundedness" even as she studied acting from a very early age, so that she was always playing softball or basketball or volleyball, she said. "But when the basketball show [at City] came up I was like, 'No way.' "

Ms. Glover grew up in Pittsburgh hearing about Clemente, the same as many next-generation kids who didn't get to see him play.

"My dad had all these stories. [Clemente] was a hero of his and he would talk about watching him play, throwing guys out at first base from the outfield. He was amazing, there's still nobody like him. Having a chance to relive that, but as a woman's story, that's a unique aspect of it and really cool."

The play reaches back to that era and is a family-friendly story. Pittsburgh Playwrights founder Mark Clayton Southers is producing the Pittsburgh premiere of "The Great One," which began as a film script before taking its current form.

Like many theatrical works that use sports as a nostalgic touchstone, there's a more universal picture to be drawn here.

"It's about thinking back to that time in our lives -- and it could be at any age -- who were the people that were closest to you and you had these discoveries together and you had these firsts together, and you were all figuring out at the same time who you might be? And then the further away you get from that, you look back and think, 'Is that kid still in me somewhere? Or have I forgotten where I started from?' "

To take on multiple characters, Ms. Glover is under the direction of Don DiGiulio, her husband and producing partner in No Name Players. The can relate to the nostalgic tone of "The Great One" -- as they approached the show, the couple realized their first meeting was 10 years ago this month in another production for Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company.

Mr. DiGiulio advised his star that the characters -- including two boys at age 12 -- are individuals, but as seen through Molly's eyes.

"It was a bit overwhelming at first. The main focus is young Molly, she's the character who's there the most, so what I worked on first was connecting her to adult Molly," she said. "The trick of this is it's not Tressa the actor playing this character, it's adult Molly going back in time playing these kids as she sees them."

To morph from character to character, Ms. Glover will transform using physical and vocal cues and minimal props. When she's channeling Molly's pal Danny, she'll wear a baseball cap backward. "For Richie, there's a toothpick he'll grab, that's the kind of kid he is," Ms. Glover said.

"Each character informs the other, so it's just catching momentum as you go, which surprised me. It was a little easier than I thought when I was first looking at playing these characters. I use different color highlighter for each character and when you get to a certain page and see five colors, you think, 'What am I doing?" So having little physical and vocal things, yeah, that helps."

With no teammates, so to speak, to play off of or provide sparks of energy, the audience has a role to play in "The Great One."

"The way that the play is written, I'm sharing this story with them," Ms. Glover said. "So if you are from Pittsburgh, you'll be nodding your head a lot. But, in general, just that time period, if you lived through it -- the stories that you tell or where you play baseball or go sled-riding or go to school, or events happening around that time -- it's very nostalgic in that way.

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