Theater & dance

Stage REview

A winning road trip in Merrimack Rep’s ‘Going to See the Kid’

From left: Joel Colodner, Veronika Duerr, and John Gregorio in “Going to See the Kid.”

Meghan Moore

From left: Joel Colodner, Veronika Duerr, and John Gregorio in “Going to See the Kid.”

LOWELL — The retirement of Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz this year revived a question whose answer had never before been in much doubt: Who is the team’s greatest-ever player?

As the centerpiece of three World Series-winning teams, Ortiz changed the direction of the franchise in a way that can never be matched. But the late Ted Williams stands as a kind of father figure for the ballclub, someone whose on-field accomplishments may or may not be equaled someday but whose importance cannot be supplanted.

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As such, Williams also hovers over the characters in “Going to See the Kid” — a near-mythological presence who serves as vehicle for self-discovery.

Commissioned by Merrimack Repertory Theatre and making its world premiere there through Dec. 24, “Going to See the Kid” aims for the “holiday show” label and just barely qualifies, I suppose, because it ends with the exchange of Christmas presents and a flood of warm fuzzies. And playwright Steven Drukman definitely takes full advantage of the sentimental leeway we grant shows in that genre.

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But along the way this humorous, warm-hearted crowd-pleaser is surprisingly rich and emotionally complex. It receives a supremely sympathetic reading by director Alexander Greenfield, and is likely to spur ovations around these parts for many (holiday) seasons to come.

Veronika Duerr slathers on the Boston accent as Ellis, a young sportswriter for the Boston Globe who has landed the promise of an interview with the ailing Williams. (The play begins in late 2001; Williams died the following July.) Joel Colodner is Simon, an accomplished arts critic who has glommed onto Ellis’s assignment, finagling a shared byline and mansplaining to her that he’ll bring a wider perspective to the piece so as to appeal to readers who sip wine on the Tanglewood lawn rather than “belching loudly in the bleachers.”

In order to make this a road-trip play, Drukman has them drive to Williams’s Florida home rather than flying. Along for the ride is Ellis’s husband, David (John Gregorio, also playing a series of one-scene characters, mainly as caricature), who is amiable but rather awful to Ellis, forming an instant fraternity with Simon at her expense.

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Duerr is excellent, flipping smoothly between direct address and in-scene work as she communicates Ellis’s mixture of ambition and doubt. Simon’s pretentiousness seems a bit over the top at first, but Colodner finds surprising nuance in the role; the critic’s obsession with the arts, this performance suggests, masks a wounded sense of aggrievement and a longing for connection.

Crucially, when Ellis and Simon find common ground, the breakthrough feels earned. They each feel like outsiders, and begin to see how their respective worldviews could complement each other. When they finally land on Williams’s doorstep, their audience with the great man is less about receiving wisdom from above than testing out a newfound sense of cooperation.

There are some problematic elements in the way the play deals with Simon’s sexuality. It seems he’s gay, but this is tittered about rather than confirmed; when the trio reaches New York, it’s unattractively implied that Simon engages the services of a (much younger) escort. Even if said escort is also a PhD candidate, this detail feels, let’s say, ungenerous.

Scenes (and locations) flow together in Greenfield’s fluid direction, which leads us on a deep dive into the psychology of these characters while bringing the story home in a brisk 90 minutes. Jason Sherwood’s scenic design is dominated by a series of lightboxes that illuminate text culled from Globe newsprint. Brian J. Lilienthal’s effective lighting aids with the numerous transitions.

Drukman doesn’t quite tie together the many thematic threads he tugs at, and by play’s end he pushes the limits of suspended disbelief with a checklist of happy outcomes — but each one registers with the audience like a winning run. I’m not much for public belching, but as someone who enjoys sitting in the Fenway bleachers as well as sipping wine at Tanglewood, I found plenty here to cheer about.

Going To See The Kid

Play by Steven Drukman. Directed by Alexander Greenfield. Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre. At Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Lowell, through Dec. 24. Tickets: $26-$70, 978-654- 4678, www.mrt.org

Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremydgoodwin.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyDGoodwin.
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