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‘Bleacher Bums’ brings America’s favorite pastime to the stage

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An hour north of Wrigleyville, the LHS Theatre Department brought a piece of Chicago to life in “Bleacher Bums” on April 27-28. Even before meeting the characters, it already has a familiar nostalgia — brought about first by the set, the iconic ivy-covered brick of Wrigley Field. The beauty of this play is that there are no scene changes, no travelling, and yet it never feels stale. Even from the other side of the wall, putting the audience on the field, the actors don’t feel distanced but instead immediately engaged.

A cast of characters is introduced one by one, each with a personality that’s larger than life, but somehow they feel perfect for the situation, played with grace by the talented students. They are distinctly developed, Chicagoans through and through, different people motivated by the same sport. Fans come to Wrigley to visit, but these are more than just fans. These are old-timers, ride-or-dies, lovers of the game and the team in equal parts. While kids around them cheer and sigh, they debate the merits of players and trade bets between crotchety jabs.

There’s Decker (junior Jason Sekili), a superstitious businessman, whose introduction comes as he pays a girl to vacate his lucky seat. Ritchie (junior Ryan Kreighbaum) is in charge of keeping the score, dutifully recording every play on his card. Greg (junior Gilbert Ferguson) cheerfully comments along with the game into what seems to be a radio, in tune to each shift and change before anyone else despite his blindness. They’re rounded out by Zig (senior Connor Nekich), a gruff old man who never takes his eyes off the game and makes arguments about players through his cigar, a jarring callback to my own grandfather. The four of them debate good-naturedly from the moment the game starts, each putting small amounts of money on the line in a well-practiced ritual, a dynamic familiar from the moment it’s introduced.

Their presence is sharply contrasted against other attendees of the game: two girls who seem to be primarily interested in sunbathing and enjoying the afternoon, a group of friends joyfully holding a birthday sign in the rows behind, and a couple who, despite never speaking aloud, put on a very convincing picture of a first date.

They never say what year this occurs, but even I (as a subpar baseball fan at best) recognized names like Sammy Sosa and Kerry Wood well enough to ascertain what decade we’d travelled back to. This was before the triumphant Cub era of the last few years — but even 50 years without a pennant can’t dull this city’s boundless enthusiasm and sometimes bitter commitment to the team that can’t seem to win. The play, written in 1977 by Chicago’s Organic Theatre Company, understands Chicago on an intimate level, and anyone who’s spent time in the city will recognize it as 0an old friend.

The game itself, at no point visible to the audience, is moved along through the innings by an announcer whose voice echoes across the theatre. Junior Kelsey Collins is masterful in a role without much character to work with, delivering each name and announcement in a confident, calm way that plays as a contrast to the impassioned yells and groans of the fans.

While all the originally introduced characters have the feel of those very familiar with where they are and what roles they play, the story progresses and adds in some new personalities to shuffle the cards. Marvin (junior Matthew Pavlik) arrives with sunglasses, greased hair, and a smarmy smile to up the stakes of the bets and push our band of familiars further than they want to go. A self-proclaimed superfan (junior Michelle Hogarty) pops in and out to encourage the crowd, hyping up the athletes and hanging off every play, her enthusiasm escalating to levels that eventually get her removed from the park after an ill-fated trip to the scoreboard. Finally there’s Rose, Zig’s wife, (junior Maja Gavrilovic) who’s been looking for him since the very beginning and has had enough of her husband loitering around the ballpark and betting away all their money.

As the game progresses, shuffled neatly along by the announcer and the organ music that fills each lull, the audience begins to get the hang of it. As each batter is called, names are starting to sound familiar instead of foreign. But as the rhythm of the nonexistent game finally settles among the stands of the Studio Theater, tensions come to a head in the stands of the ballpark. Ritchie, sick of being sent away for refreshments and left out of the higher-stakes action, joins in on the betting. Rose and Zig fight about whose right it is to spend the money, with her undermining and counter-betting against every wager he makes. Marvin encourages Ritchie to talk up a girl in the stands called Melody King (Gracie Benson) as part of yet another bet, a fact that disgusts her when exposed. Decker and Marvin get into heated talks over stakes, manipulation, disloyalty, and the right of a man to sit in his lucky seat. Ritchie strikes out, and Melody strikes up a conversation with Greg instead, who is still radioing in his thoughts on each play as if unbothered by the surrounding chaos.

As the characters spin out of control, so does the game. The Cubs pull into an impressive lead, which spurs Zig and Rose to bet together on the outcome of the game. A formidable member of the other team is driven crazy by taunts from the superfan, who seems to have a book with insight on every player in the league. Ritchie turns on Marvin, who he realizes has been manipulating him all along. And at the final moment, what initially seemed like a sure win for the Cubs slips from their grasp. Everyone but Marvin is defeated as the game ends and the stadium clears. Though it was a defeat, things are different now than they were before, and the once-familiar dynamics have shifted within the group. Decker looks at Ritchie with respect. Zig and Rose resolve to come to games together from now on. Greg offers Melody a ride home, which she accepts. Marvin is left with his winnings in his pocket and nobody to share them with.

The organ plays as the last people leave the stands, marking another loss at Wrigley, but there’s always a new day and a new ballgame to look forward to. That’s the message the audience is left with, though not in so many words. After all, we are Chicagoans at heart, and we don’t take these kinds of things too hard. We get up and come back to play another game.

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‘Bleacher Bums’ brings America’s favorite pastime to the stage