Theater Review: “The Jump Shot” — Last Call

By David Greenham

There are powerful moments in The Jump Shot, particularly those that explore the psychological impact of COVID on our minds and lives.

The Jump Shot by Stephen Shore. Directed by Kelly Letourneau. A world premiere workshop performance staged at Windhover Center for the Performing Arts, Rockport. (Closed)

Heather (Cindy Tsai), center, and Whitney (Yarissa Tiara Millan), Nikki (Grace Experience), and Stan (Bill Arnold) in The Jump Shot. Photo: Stephen Shore

We often write in the Arts Fuse about the continuing need for organizations that nurture new plays. Some exist: there are several outstanding playwright training programs. But if you are an independent playwright who wants to see their script on stage there are a lot of obstacles, and not just the daunting economics: there’s the logistics of bringing artists together as well as locating a suitable venue. Given the escalating rise in urban real estate values, the latter has become an especially formidable challenge.

But there are still those who are stubborn enough to make theater happen. New York-based Actor Stephen Shore, who has been seen on various Boston-area stages, including this summer in Gloucester Stage’s production of Private Lives, is among that number. He and a small crew returned to Boston’s north show last weekend to premiere his new play The Jump Shot at the welcoming Windhover Center for the Performing Arts in Rockport.

The set-up: The Jump Shot is a bar in Winston-Salem, North Carolina owned by former UNC Basketball guard Whitney (Yarussa Tiara Millan). She and her husband opened the watering hole after she suffered a devastating knee injury in the final game of her senior season with the Tarheels. It ended her hopes of being drafted in the WNBA.

The bar struggled financially from the start. But Covid shut everything down and the impact was was devastating. Thanks to Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding, Whitney was able to keep her small staff employed, including bartender Nikki (Grace Experience), and servers Alex (Ray Huth), Daniel (Rob Milano), and Heather (Cindy Tsai).

The action of the play takes place on a fall evening, a week before Halloween. Whitney announces that she’s closing the bar early to talk to the staff. Stan (Bill Arnold), a barstool philosopher and loyal customer since Covid (apparently) faded, is also invited to stay and hang out.

It’s Heather’s 21st birthday at midnight, so everyone thinks that they’re staying to celebrate. She is in her sophomore year at the NC School of the Arts; in the eyes of her fellow workers she carries the promise of youth. Alex is quietly struggling with his relationship with his ex-partner and their three-year-old daughter, Dolly. Nikki is frustrated about her life in a lot of ways, but most clearly with self-centered focus of her ex-boyfriend Daniel. For his part, Daniel can’t seem to get out of his own way. Something about The Jump Shot connects them all — despite their personal challenges, they seem more like a family than mere coworkers. They laugh together, share stories and shots, and even sing together.

About half way through the 95-minute drama, Whitney drops the bomb: she’s closing the bar.

The news sets off panicked conversations: there are efforts to talk Whitney out of it as well as half-hatched plans to raise money to support her business. “I just want this nightmare to be over,” the tired owner confesses, referring not only to the bar, but her lost dream of a professional basketball career and the uncertainty of post-pandemic life. “Life just happens and we don’t get a say in none of it,” Whitney notes at another point. Nikki agrees that the future looks bleak: “No matter how hard I work, I end up with bullshit.”

Stan, a generation or two older than the rest, turns out to be a retired literature professor. He sympathizes with their frustration and shares a life-long regret: he did not apply to NASA back when he was a young man. He quotes Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” Yarissa Tiara Millan taps into that angst in her portrait of Whitney. This is a strong but bedeviled woman who is frustrated about her injury, the loss of her dream, and now the pending extinction of her backup plan.

Cindy Tsai’s Heather will delight theater-savvy audience members when she offers her earthy description of how she felt learning the famous Meisner repetition technique at NC School of the Arts: “what’s the fucking point? Nothing happens!” (Playwright Shore is an alum). Although what the actress sings may not fit in the final version of the play, Tsai has a beautiful voice.

The arc of Huth’s Alex is more complicated, since neither his ex-partner or their daughter is relevant to the essential action of the play. There’s more to learn about Alex and his relationships – perhaps it would be in a different play.

There are powerful moments in The Jump Shot, particularly those that explore the psychological impact of COVID on our minds and lives. We’re read a lot about how the pandemic has affected businesses, particularly theater and its dwindling audiences — but how has it affected us as individuals?

Thankfully, the plague didn’t quell Shore’s dogged determination. With some financial support, and good actor friends, the playwright and troupe were able to rehearse the show for three weeks in New York and then dig in for more work at Windhover, a beautiful space that seems to have been made to help make theatrical dreams come true.

David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.

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