As a sport, boxing has been relegated to a dim corner of the public consciousness, nowhere near as prominent as it was during the glittering heyday of Muhammad Ali and for most of the 20th century before that.
But as the subject of cinematic drama, boxing has proven enduringly hard to beat, eclipsing even baseball. Because a tragic arc is virtually built into prizefighting and its practitioners are often vulnerable or self-destructive figures whose rise-and-fall narratives make for compelling stories, film history is chockablock with examples of good, in some instances great, boxing movies.
Theater history, not so much. But playwright Michael Cristofer is certainly doing his part to rectify that with his very fine “Man in the Ring,’’ now at Huntington Theatre Company in a generally stellar production, directed with inventive muscularity by Michael Greif on a shadow-infused set by David Zinn.
A drama of guilt and forgiveness that unfolds like a duet between the present and the past, “Man in the Ring’’ persuasively frames the boxing ring — and a boxer’s life — as a moral and existential battleground where the stakes could not be higher. The boxer in question is Emile Griffith. He administered a 1962 beating in the ring so ferocious that the opponent died, was remorseful about it forever after, and ended his own days in a haze of dementia, dying broke at age 75 in 2013.
Born on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, Griffith reigned as a charismatic champion at a time and in a sport where public knowledge of his sexual identity — he was bisexual — would have been a career-ender. At the weigh-in with Benny (Kid) Paret before their title bout, Paret called Griffith an anti-gay slur in Spanish. In the 12th round of their nationally televised contest at Madison Square Garden on March 24, 1962, Griffith unleashed an estimated 17 punches in five seconds. Paret died 10 days later.
As for Griffith, he was never quite the same fighter again. “After Paret, I never wanted to hurt a guy again,’’ he was once quoted as saying. “I was so scared to hit someone, I was always holding back.’’
In “Man in the Ring,’’ Griffith is played in old age by John Douglas Thompson, a smart piece of casting, because there’s not much Thompson can’t do. This splendid actor achingly conveys Emile’s haunted quality, that compound of torment, confusion, and determination to somehow untangle the riddle of his own life. Slightly bent at the waist, Thompson’s Griffith wanders through scenes from his past, each blow (physical and not) seeming to cause fresh pain. “I see you,’’ Griffith says frequently to his younger self, and Thompson’s eyes express the complicated mixture of feelings that sight brings the old man.
As young Emile, Kyle Vincent Terry is electric. Balancing grace and power, the actor is entirely plausible as a man who, though sensitive enough to take joy in the making of women’s hats, is also quite capable of making a living with his fists. That is essential in a production that re-creates jolting segments from numerous fights on a rotating platform, harshly illuminated by flashbulb-like bursts of lighting (the design is by Ben Stanton). When Emile is outside the ring, Terry skillfully communicates the restlessness of a man whose impulsive nature is at war with his need to keep secrets about himself.
Music director Michael McElroy smoothly incorporates Caribbean songs that unlock Emile’s tide of memories, and there are strong supporting performances from Gordon Clapp (“NYPD Blue’’) in the somewhat clichéd role of Griffith’s gruff manager, who, during the fight with Paret, urges Emile to “Shut his mouth for good’’; Victor Almanzar as the old Emile’s loyal lover and caretaker; Starla Benford as Griffith’s mother, trying to keep her son from going astray but lacking the authority to do so because of their charged relationship; Sean Boyce Johnson as the insouciant but ill-fated Paret; and Krystal Joy Brown as a dancer to whom Griffith is briefly married. The play reenacts the brutal beating Griffith was subjected to in 1992 after leaving a Times Square gay bar, which nearly cost him his life.
While a certain slackness sets in during parts of Act 2 of “Man in the Ring,’’ an evocative bit of staging is seldom long in coming from director Greif (“Dear Evan Hansen,’’ “Rent,’’ “Next to Normal’’). In one brief but potent scene after Griffith has begun his downward spiral, Thompson and Terry — old and young Emile — stand back-to-back, united but vulnerable, both staggering from the blows of an unseen opponent. “Things happen in the ring that nobody wants to happen,’’ Griffith said two decades after Paret’s death. And outside, too, as he knew well.
MAN IN THE RING
Play by Michael Cristofer. Directed by Michael Greif. Music direction by Michael McElroy. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Dec. 22. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org