Theater is often praised for exploring the human condition in deep and surprising ways, and even more so when that extra layer of current relevance is added.
You get all that, with an emphasis on the topicality, in Andrew Hinderaker’s play Colossal, now at Dallas Theater Center as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.
The title also serves as an apt adjective. It truly is colossal, smartly presenting a subject that is epic in scope and setting — a college football field in Texas — and enhancing it with little moments that speak of various kinds of relationships between men: fathers and sons, teammates, mentors, and lovers.
A Wisconsin native, Hinderaker wrote the play after graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin (yes, there’s even a jab at Oklahoma football), and hits on two highly current issues: the effects of football injuries and being gay in the world of college/pro sports, where, more so than in other fields, the heteronormative is not only preferred, but expected. Interestingly, the playwright decided to use modern dance as juxtaposition.
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Mike (Zack Weinstein) suffered a spinal injury after a football accident and is in a wheelchair. We see his relationship with father Damon (Joel Ferrell), a modern-dance choreographer who was probably the only father upset that his son chose football over dance; with his gay physical therapist, Jerry (Steven Michael Walters, who benefits from playing a gay character that’s more complex and not stereotypical like the gay man he played in The Book Club Play a few months ago); with his former co-captain and friend Marcus (Khris Davis); and with himself before the injury, via the character of Young Mike (Alex Stoll).
The scenes play out in four 15-minute quarters — the scoreboard on John Coyne’s football field set in the Wyly Theatre counts each one down. There’s even a halftime show with a drumline and a gorgeously athletic modern-dance performance (by the football players) choreographed by Joshua L. Peugh of Dark Circles Contemporary Dance, set to percussion music.
There’s also a pre-show as the audience files into the theater, which is laid out with the stage closest to Flora Street, opposite from where the audience typically faces in this highly reconfigurable space.
Director Kevin Moriarty loves to go big (he once said his dream would be to direct a theater production at AT&T Stadium) but here proves he can do his best work in intimate scenes between two actors, especially Weinstein and Ferrell.
It doesn’t hurt that he has cast the play extremely well. The playwright has it in the contract that the role of Mike must be played by a disabled actor, and Weinstein, who broke his neck in a canoeing accident, captures pathos without asking for pity; it’s a beautiful performance.
The other actors are terrific too, although the hotel room scene between Stoll and Davis feels more uncomfortable than it should be for their characters.
One character tells Mike, “You got hurt because you played a game that hurts people,” but in Colossal, it’s clear that emotional wounds can run just as deep as physical ones.
But just like in any sport, every fall or loss can be recovered from. It’s all a matter of determination.