In Merrimack Rep’s ‘Going to See the Kid,’ a journey to see a legend
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LOWELL — When Merrimack Repertory Theatre artistic director Sean Daniels met with playwright Steven Drukman in January and asked him to write a play with a Boston Red Sox angle that the theater could run during the Christmas season, Daniels was talking to the right guy.
Having grown up in Newton in a family that had season tickets at Fenway Park, Drukman knew well the pain that came with being a Red Sox fan during the decades before the Sox finally won the World Series in 2004. One of those scars, of course, involved a certain ground ball through the legs of a certain first baseman in the sixth game of the 1986 Series. Drukman, then a young actor, was working as a waiter in Chicago as the Sox and the New York Mets squared off for that fateful game.
He kept popping into the restaurant's kitchen to watch the game on a small black-and-white TV, and when the ball went past Bill Buckner into right field, Drukman sank into a chair and refused to finish his shift. "It wasn't an act of will,'' he explained in a phone interview. "My legs just buckled under me. I was inconsolable and unrevivable.''
Fast-forward three decades. Drukman, now 53, has poured his knowledge of all things Red Sox into "Going to See the Kid,'' slated to premiere Nov. 30-Dec. 24 at Merrimack Rep. The "Kid'' is none other than the legendary Ted Williams.
Drukman's play, which he calls "mostly a comedy,'' largely takes place in the fall of 2001 and concludes at Christmas 2002. Two (fictional) Boston Globe journalists take a trip to Florida to conduct an interview with an ailing Williams. (Drukman was initially inspired by David Halberstam's book "The Teammates,'' about a journey to see Williams undertaken by his old teammates Johnny Pesky and Dom DiMaggio.)
One of Drukman's protagonists is a scrappy 30-year-old sportswriter named Ellis, portrayed by Veronika Duerr. Ellis hails from a working-class background and hopes the interview will elevate her status from stringer to staffer. (Drukman, who is a professor of playwriting at NYU, knows the life of a freelancer firsthand; he used to be a stringer for The New York Times, covering theater.) Beyond Ellis's personal ambition is the matter of her seriously ill father, who is receiving shoddy medical care. A full-time job will enable her to get better care for him.
"After this election, this play has become this kind of unlikely parable about Trump and the class divide in the country,'' remarks Drukman.
The other writer in "Going to See the Kid'' is a patrician, 65-year-old columnist for the Globe's Living/Arts section, named Simon and played by Joel Colodner. To Ellis's great annoyance, Simon — who appears to have no interest in baseball whatsoever — has been assigned to write a profile of Williams that is slated to run during Christmas week of 2001. The pair are accompanied on their journey to Florida by David, Ellis's husband, who is working on a PhD in social psychology. David is played by the protean John Gregorio, who also plays a host of other characters, including Williams.
There are twists in the relationship among the three travelers as they drive south; their motivations become clearer and they come to know one another on a deeper level.
During a recent rehearsal of "Going to See the Kid,'' easy banter alternated with crisp focus as director Alexander Greenfield ran through scenes from the latest version of the script with Duerr, Colodner, and Gregorio. Duerr, who is from Atlanta (and is married to Sean Daniels), was so intent on nailing down Ellis's thick Boston accent that she called across the room with requests for this reporter to say the words "Sure'' and "Forty-two.''
Director and cast worked on the physical mechanics of a showdown between Ellis and a bar patron with a Southern accent, played by Gregorio, who insults Simon. They spent a lot of time rehearsing a revelatory argument between Simon and Ellis during which a drunk Simon reveals his vulnerability.
Drukman recently revised the play. In the latest version, David is writing a dissertation on empathy, to accentuate what the playwright sees as a fundamental theme of "Going to See the Kid'' — and a timely concept in the current political environment. Director Greenfield agrees. "To me, what makes it a Christmas play is that it's about how to be a better, more loving human being,'' he said.
Going to See the Kid
At Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, Nov. 30-Dec. 24. Tickets: 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org