Within my lifetime there have been some electrifying and some deplorable goings-on in the great American pastime, many of which are addressed in Back: The labor dispute and subsequent players strike of 1994, which resulted in the cancellation of the World Series. The McGwire/Sosa home run record chase of 1998, a time when the question was begged, “Why are so many guys suddenly hitting so darned well?” Released in 2007, the Mitchell Report named and shamed (or at least raised suspicions about) eighty-nine professional baseball players, several of them superstars, who allegedly used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs to boost performances, a controversial mark in the history of MLB.
Less than one year after the release of The Mitchell Report, Back premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe, endeavoring to shine light on, or at least explore, what was still a white-hot and pertinent issue in professional sports. The topic has since cooled considerably, many new policies have been implemented, and many facts about the era have since been revealed. So how does the play hold up through a retrospective lens?
The three fictitious players of the play are clearly modeled after real-life men: Kent (Patrick Allcorn) is our Mark McGwire, Raul (Ray Gonzalez) is our Jose Canseco, and Adam (Trick Danneker) is our Walt Weiss, back-to-back-to-back Rookie of the Year recipients. Playing under Tony La Russa (who, steering the A’s, garnered a Manager of the Year award and led the team to three consecutive World Series), the three were components in what was a juggernaut franchise. With so much esteem comes an unrelenting pressure for athletes to not only perform, but to improve. Baseball players are famous for looking anywhere they can for an edge.
The play is broken into nine “innings,” indicated cleverly by a scoreboard upstage, which span the entirety of the athletes’ careers. In this time we see the players’ friendships, animosities, temptations, habits, perspectives, powers, and affiliations change severally and considerably. Through all of this, the core of the drama remains fixed: Kent and Raul use performance enhancing drugs, and Adam does not. Why? And so what?
Each player is a distillation of an extreme archetype, at times too reductively so:
Raul is all id. He is unadulterated self-interest and carnal pleasure, doing whatever it takes to get his. The extremity of it would almost be impossible to swallow as feasible, if not for the fact that his prototype (Canseco) is such an unsympathetic individual himself. (See an collection of his recent rantings here.) To this day Canseco remains under fire for allegedly continuing to use steroids, in spite of having been so publicly raked across the coals. So if Raul is difficult to stomach, evidence indicates that he’s designed to be so. At one point in the play it becomes evident that Raul doesn’t know what position Adam plays, a revelation that initially struck me as outright ludicrous. In hindsight, while I don’t think this faux pas is remotely conceivable in Major League Baseball, I see it as a clumsy effort to classify Raul as a profoundly, profoundly arrogant and selfish man.
On the other pole, Adam is superego. Next to the behemoth and corrupt men with whom he shares a locker room, Adam seems like some kind of naive cub scout, striving for perfection, trumpeting moral perspectives, and keeping diligently to the quiet and thankless grind of methodically improving himself and his skills as he is surpassed and out-shined by those with more pliant senses of virtue. Something I wish the production had delved into more deeply is that Adam (Weiss) is not even a decent hitter, let alone a slugger. He’s a defensive wizard, a specialist. Ergo, the temptation for him to use steroids is far smaller than it is for either Raul or Kent, who with their already incredible ways with the long-ball and gargantuan physical frames stand to reap so much more from the effects of using. So when Adam gets on his soapbox about the sanctity and purity of the game, it only goes so far, he having never squared off against the demons that tempt the other men so insidiously. This is to say, if Adam were modeled after Jim Thome or Ken Griffey Jr. or Babe Ruth–sluggers who put up giant numbers without any suspicion of juicing–his refusal to use would wear more distinctly like a mark of integrity, as he would have been as tempted as the men he rebukes. In the case of Back it’s apples to oranges.
And Kent is smack-dab between Raul and Adam, the ego. He performs all sorts of moral acrobatics and exercises in justification in order to convince himself of his entitlements to excellence and recognition, so by extension his entitlement to any professional boost, be it legal or no. He is textually the most complicated (yes, interesting) character of the bunch, as he isn’t in such monotonously rigid adherence to the extreme of a perspective. He actually grapples with things, experiences guilt, and wonders about himself. For this reason he is also the easiest character to be disappointed in, as he knows better than to succumb to the devil on his shoulder.
As the possibility of reconciliation or agreement among the men seems nearly impossible, and as none of them are particularly emotive (save a masculine anger), articulate, or tactical, the script resorts to an eventual fever-pitch of machismo and chest-puffing (which are already prominent throughout). Adam is the one character to somewhat escape this ‘climax,’ rather bowing into relative obscurity. Once the general situation is established–who will use and who will get caught?–the playwright doesn’t manage to focus the narrative, but rather cranks up the volume on what are several iterations of one core conflict that is static.
In the grand scheme, Back is not a play about steroids, but about moral fiber. How low will one sink to attain an end? How starkly will one defy one’s moral barometer in order to achieve? At least the play works best as an examination of character, as it only sets out to touch character aspects of the exceedingly complicated steroid controversy. As a lesson on the history of steroids it does not dig very deep, and leaves a lot unsaid.
The costuming, sound design, and set design are admirably detailed and consistent, keeping to the era of the drama with nostalgic fidelity. More, all three actors turn in thorough performances of characters that deserve to have been granted more dimensions on the page. SPT’s Back Back Back is ultimately an entertaining and, at times, compelling effort. They do tremendous justice to a story that suffers from some considerable fault-lines.
Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m., through April 22 // Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W Green Lake Dr N // $15 – $27, tickets available here