Red Remembers by Andrew Guerdat. Directed by John Rando.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
David Garrison as Red Barber; photo: Jaime Davidson
"I want to tell you about Ethel Barrymore."
Broadway actress Ethel Barrymore, a star from the turn of the last century until her death in 1959, was a huge baseball fan, principally of the New York Giants. Though best remembered for her film roles, including the Empress of Russia in "Rasputin and the Empress," the art gallery owner in "Portrait of Jennie," and Doris Dayís grandmother in "Young at Heart, she was an acknowledged attendee of the game. She also had the scores of the Giantsí games whispered to her during performances on stage so she could keep abreast of the game. She knew Red Barber who had been the radio voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers (1939-1953) and then, in an unexpected switch, for their rivals the New York Yankees (1954-1966). Both were fans of Jackie Robinson who, in his last season of professional baseball was traded by Barberís former team, the Dodgers, to Barrymoreís favorite team, the Giants.
This, however, has little to do with the story being told on stage at the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA where a new one-man play about Barber is currently being played by the actor David Garrison. In Andrew Guerdatís play we meet the old Southerner at home in Florida in his declining years. His wife, Lylah, an early Alzheimerís victim, is being packed off to a home; their daughter Sarah is on her way to pick her mother up. Red, who has tales to tell, is talking to a couple who may adopt the Barberís cat. He reminisces about his life and career, his protection against his own illness and senility. His fifty-nine year marriage, having undergone the usual trials and tribulations, now gives him his reason for being and he suffers the pangs of insecurity at this new challenge of living alone while his wife slips further and further away from him.
An alcoholic who has sworn off drinking but still canít resist a slug or two now and then, Barber comes to us full-blown and still a redhead, a man near death who doesnít want to realize that his possibilities are limited by his age and his circumstances. He is a man who has known Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, the sports greats and the topnotch soloists in the world of opera. He and Ethel Barrymore have dined with kings and with one another. A true great in the world of broadcasting he has helped to create the personalities of Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Garaggiola and so many others. He knows he cannot die, but he knows he cannot live without the love of the woman he has lived with so long. He is tethered to pillars, supporting a temple of his own design, pulling it down around himself like a modern-day Samson.
There is much humor in this play. There is much drama as well. David Garrison creates a bigger-than-life figure who is still just a fragile mortal. He gives Barber a shake that could rattle a horse. He brings to the role a voice that is distinctly this famous announcerís voice, yet it is not like the original at all. His face, haggard and aged, is not like Barberís and yet it seems to be that of the famous baseball play-caller. There is something oddly right about it all, but thankfully it is still a theatrical experience that one can accept, applaud - cheer even - and then leave behind.
Garrison knows just how to play the facets of the jewel he has been given and director John Rando has been brilliantly selective in choosing which of those glistening faces to allow the actor to show. We see him at his best and at his worst. We are warned early on what that worst entails, but when Red Barber is overtaken by his excesses and his anxiety it is a truly difficult thing to witness. How Garrison handles what happens is nothing short of a brilliant example of what happens in the collaboration among author, director and actor.
Jonathan Wentzís very realistic set functions well for this play. Matthew E. Adelson turns in his best work of the season with his lighting design and the combination of music, sound effects by J Hagenbuckle and projections by Shawn E. Boyle work perfectly to enhance the concept of things remembered.
I have remarked many times in this frugal summer, reviewing plays in three states, that I am not fond of mono-drama, that often dreary format where one actor performs on a stage alone for two hours. I am ready now to withdraw that statement. There have been too many good ones this season and Red Remembers, in this world premiere production, is certainly one of the best.
Red Remembers plays at the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA through November 1. For full schedule and tickets contact the box office at 413-298-5576 or check the theaterís website at www.berkshiretheatre.org.