Playing the Assassin by David Robson. Delaware Theatre Company, October 2015
This drama is even more timely now than when it premiered in Philadelphia in 2013 in a joint production by Interact Theatre and Act II Playhouse.
Television documentaries and lawsuits are calling more attention than ever to play-related injuries that have caused long-term trauma. Rule changes and new helmet designs are lessening the risk of head injuries, while nothing has been done to avoid injuries to lower parts of the body. You could even argue that the prohibitions against hitting necks and heads cause players to inflict more hits on legs.
This play is based on a 1978 incident in which Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders smashed into the shoulder of New England Patriots’ Darryl Stingley, who was permanently paralyzed and who died prematurely. The hit was not against NFL rules, as it was not helmet-to-helmet contact. In this fictionalized version of events we meet Frank, a now-retired football player whose on-field aggression earned him the same nickname as Tatum: “The Assassin.” Years earlier he was responsible for inflicting just such an injury to an opposing player.
Frank has now been flown to Chicago by CBS Sports to participate in a pre-Super Bowl sit-down with the player he injured. The live interview is to be titled “Return of the Legends.” Frank is met in a hotel room by Lewis, a young CBS producer in charge of coordinating the reunion meeting. Lewis is not whom he claims to be, however.
Frank gradually grows wary of Lewis, and we eventually learn that Lewis is the son of the crippled player. Frank is tormented by guilt and angry that his reputation is based on the one incident. He asks “Did I commit a crime?” Lewis is resentful not only because of his father’s paralysis, but because Frank never apologized. Both men are capable of expressing physical rage, and there’s exciting action in the latter part of the play. All of this reflects the fact that football is a game where athletes are expected to be violent in order to keep their jobs.
Ezra Knight is a tower of strength as Frank, while Garrett Lee Hendricks is utterly convincing as Lewis. Joe Brancato’s direction maintains tension and provides one of the most gripping productions of the year.
Read other reviews in The Cultural Critic