Theater Review: “Tinker to Evers to Chance” — Too Many Pop-ups

The play is at best a solid double off the Green Monster at Fenway, or more appropriate, a line drive into the ivy at venerable Wrigley Field.

Tinker to Evers to Chance by Mat Smart. Directed by Sean Daniels. At the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through March 6.

James Craven and Emily Kitchens in the Merrimack Repertory Theater production of "Tinker to Ever to Chance." Photo: Meghan Moore.

James Craven and Emily Kitchens in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of “Tinker to Evers to Chance.” Photo: Meghan Moore.

By Glenn Rifkin

Given the historical angst faced by Red Sox fans (86 years of futility prior to the magical 2004 World Series victory), it seemed like a reasonable decision by Merrimack Repertory Theatre artistic director Sean Daniels to stage a baseball play about the anguish and pain of long-suffering Chicago Cubs fans. If any audience could relate, it would be here, in the heart of Red Sox Nation.

Tinker to Evers to Chance, a comedy/drama by award-winning young playwright Mat Smart is a smartly written, multi-layered exploration of love and loss, of a belief in the transcendent influence of the game and the short distance between the past and the present. It would be nice to say that the production knocks it out of the park—after all, what good is writing about a baseball play if one can’t invoke an endless array of diamond metaphors?—but the truth is that Tinker is at best a solid double off the Green Monster at Fenway, or more appropriate, a line drive into the ivy at venerable Wrigley Field.

Runs are never scored, but there are moments when the bases are loaded and a stronger cast might have knocked them in. (Okay, that might be enough clichés). The two-person cast — James Craven and Emily Kitchens — is earnest and determined, and Craven has his moments. But their effort is weighted down by the considerable pressure of pulling off multi-role performances that stretch across nearly a century of anguish and frustration. The dramatic material is solid, but it can only soar with actors who truly embody the words and the interaction between these melancholy characters. The play’s signature question is: “When is enough, enough?” In this case, there simply isn’t enough.

Which isn’t to say it isn’t an enjoyable experience, especially for knowledgeable baseball fans. The play begins in October, 2003 when the Cubbies, a team that had not won a World Series in 95 years (that number is now up to 108), is on the brink of getting to the World Series. Facing the upstart Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series, the Cubs lead the series 3 games to 2, and hold a 3-0 lead late in the game. An ominous moment looms.

Lauren, a 30-something Cubs fan, arrives at her mother’s apartment, across the street from Wrigley, ready to meet her mother at this potentially historic game. She has shelled out $1000 a ticket and she is ecstatic at the thought of sharing this moment with her beloved mother Nessa. Arriving breathlessly from New York, she encounters RJ, her mother’s caregiver, who tells her that Nessa has already left for the ballpark. Lauren unveils a package holding the jersey of Hall of Famer Johnny Evers, the second baseman for the last Cubs team to win a World Series in 1908. Evers, who figures prominently throughout the play, gave the jersey to Nessa’s mother in an encounter after a game in 1906, and the garment is being passed down to Lauren. After a spirited conversation with RJ, who is clearly withholding pertinent information about Nessa, Lauren dons the sainted jersey in hopes that it will bring the necessary luck to the Cubs on that night.

When she arrives at the ballpark, her mother is nowhere to be found. In growing panic, she races back to the apartment and interrogates RJ about what has happened to her mother. But if one is expecting an emerging murder mystery here, it is not to be. Rather, this is an existential look at decisions and life moments that cross through time and space, of words said that can’t be unsaid. The undercurrent of Cub futility is ever present. That night’s playoff game, broadcast over a TV in the apartment, bespeaks the despair of never getting quite enough. In the 8th inning, with one out, a Marlins batter pops up near foul territory and a moment of infamy in Cub history unfolds.

The leftfielder, Moises Alou, drifts towards the wall, looks up as the ball drops toward his outreached glove, and is deflected by a Cubs fan into the stands. Alou is furious and is pointing at the fan and screaming. With five outs to go to get to the World Series, the fan has inadvertently messed things up. Like others around him, he was just reaching for a foul ball, like fans do a million times a season. But this moment triggered a black chasm. The Cubs began to fold like a cheap tent, booting an easy double-play ball and giving up eight runs. They lost that night and the next night and another season, albeit one of immense promise, was ruined.

For Smart, it is a device for connecting the near present to the distant past. It’s all backdrop to the story of a daughter and a mother whose relationship is doomed by distance and neglect. They are bound by little more than a mutual obsession with the Cubs, which has its roots in Nessa’s journey to find an aging, bitter, and infirm Evers. By way of clever staging, Craven and Kitchens don a sweater, an apron, just enough new vestments to become different characters, switching not just time periods but gender. At one point Kitchens plays Evers, at another point, it is Craven.

These characters are all riddled with loss, with profound tragedies that leave them damaged and incapable of embracing love, even when it is confronting them face to face. There are opportunities here for powerful dramatic moments but, like deflected foul pop-ups, the balls never reach the gloves. Kitchens overwrought performance is breathy, twitchy, and not quite major league. It leaves Craven, a talented veteran, without a reliable double-play partner.

Dramatist Smart, winner of the 2014 Otis Guernsey New Voices Award from the William Inge Center for the Arts, is a prospect, with major league talent. Not unlike his beloved Cubbies, given the right lineup, he looks to be a winner. But he may have to wait until next year.

**The play’s title comes from a famous poem written in 1910 by sportswriter Franklin Pierce Adams of the New York Mail about the Cubs’ stellar infielders and their propensity to turn balletic double plays.

Baseball’s Sad Lexicon

These are the saddest of possible words:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double,
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.

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