Theater review by Helen Shaw
Ah, the sounds of America’s game! The crack of the bat, the slap of the glove, the shouts of terrified Negro League players who must run for a bus as the last strike is called. This, at least, was baseball as the trailblazing Toni Stone (April Matthis) knew it in the ’40s and ’50s, when she became the first woman to play professional ball. Lydia R. Diamond’s elegantly balanced bioplay uses Stone’s unlikely story to keep many moods in the air simultaneously, trafficking in the sweetness of ballpark nostalgia even as it demolishes it. For instance, Stone’s delightfully deadpan literalism makes her a straight woman to the ribald mischief of her teammates. Even when she recalls an early coach who turned out to have been in the Ku Klux Klan, Matthis’s expression stays mild, her shoulders shrug and her cool eyes do not heat. Her white mentor lynched men; she is unsurprised. It's America’s game.
“Never could tell a story from beginning to end all nice and neat,” Stone tells us, as her mind ricochets from lyrical insights about baseball to vignettes about her beloved team, the Indianapolis Clowns, and memories of a mother who couldn’t understand her tomboy daughter. Diamond knows we don’t really need the minutiae, so she gives us a vivid and quick-moving impressionist portrait instead (inspired by Martha Ackmann’s 2010 biography), touching lightly even when emotions are at their most intense. Pam MacKinnon’s Roundabout Theatre Company production keeps a fast pace, thanks in part to movement overseen by choreographer Camille A. Brown; the superb nine-member company, in baggy midcentury baseball uniforms, trades parts and jokes at top speed. But the play hinges on a single player, and Matthis, luckily, was born for her role. We’ve seen her this droll in Elevator Repair Service parts and this forceful when she has performed for Ralph Lemon, but Toni Stone lets both sides of her talent come together. You see the ball come to her; you see her pivot to send it on. As she so often does, Matthis makes the play.
Laura Pels Theater (Off Broadway). By Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. With April Matthis. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.