Stage review: 'Great One' a touching debut for playwright

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Whether history is really measured by the stories of great men (women, too), there's no doubt they can play inspiring roles in our lives. The question is, who is great to you and in what way?

'The Great One'

Where: Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown.

When: Through March 15; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $21; www.pghplaywrights.com or 412-687-4646.


Consider the title of Russ Babines' new play, "The Great One." That has variously referred to Jackie Gleason or Wayne Gretzky, among others, but in Pittsburgh, it has long belonged to Roberto Clemente. By the latter stages of his career, Clemente became recognized as the masterful ballplayer he was and, when his life was ended early while ferrying relief supplies to Nicaragua, as a humanitarian, as well.

Clemente is the ostensible subject of Mr. Babines' play, which features Molly, who grew up in Pittsburgh and was 12 in the Pirates triumphant year of 1971 when Clemente won national accolades as the most valuable player in the World Series. But Mr. Babines has his eye on something more.

We meet Molly some years later, living in New York, now an award-winning sportswriter (the details of this somewhat stretch credulity) who is called back to Pittsburgh for a funeral. Quite naturally, this unleashes a flood of memory of her youth and that triumphant Pirates year. But that victory is the key that also unlocks memories of her friends, of growing up and the lessons we learn.

So we discover that the play's title refers not just to Clemente ... which is as far as I'm going to go because the discovery of all this is the chief attraction of Mr. Babines' play. Molly's story has to do with the nature of personal greatness but without banging us over the head with what she discovers.

"The Great One" is Mr. Babines' first play, and it is instructive to learn that he wrote it first as a screenplay. Compressing it into a one-person play gives it urgency and focus, but it also makes demands on both playwright and actor to sustain a 75-minute arc. Sometimes the story wavers on its way. In spite of the herculean efforts of Tressa Glover, who plays Molly as well as the friends who loom large in her memories, it can be hard to keep the full cast of characters straight.

But none of this uncertainty matters at the end when the whole edifice of memory and insight culminate in a satisfying epiphany for Molly and the audience.

Molly's story and Ms. Glover's work are aided by the direction of Don DiGiulio, which helps them find variety and shape, and the projections of Carolina Loyola-Garcia, which summon history and memory but go artfully fuzzy when what really matters most is what's in Molly's mind and heart.

"The Great One" is a touching debut, even if awkward in places. It would appeal to intelligent children (12 and up? 10?) and of course their intelligent parents. Mr. Babines should keep writing.

For interviews with Ms. Glover and Mr. DiGiulio and a short scene from the play, visit www.pghplaywrights.com.

Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.


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