Regardless of how we participate in hockey - whether it's on the ice or on the sidelines - we all play a part in the pressure-cooker of "the big league."
—Joff Schmidt, CBC theatre reviewer
The timing is perfect for the return of Winnipeg playwright James Durham's The Big League to Manitoba Theatre for Young People, where it premiered in 2005. With the real "big league" finally getting back to the business of playing hockey this weekend, The Big League is a timely reminder of the cost of the pressure to make it as a professional hockey player.
The Big League tells the story of Tommy Smith (Brent Gill), a 12-year-old who used to love playing hockey with his dad (Cory Wojcik), back when it used to be just a game. But with tryouts for the PeeWee AAA team coming up, Tommy's dad has started to take the game much too seriously - and Tommy has to skate the line between playing a game, and playing to win. Meanwhile, his increasingly competitive approach alienates him from his friends Deke (Raes Calvert) and Bobby (Tiffany Ayalik), who are also trying out.
The Big League deals with the big issues of pressure to perform and bullying in a brisk 60 minutes, and things do wrap up a bit too neatly and too quickly at the end. And while Durham's script has a tendency to moralize along the way, it also treats all of its characters - even Tommy's hockey-crazed dad - as real people trying to navigate complex emotions and issues.
But both Durham and director Ron Jenkins help young audiences (the show will probably work best for six to 10 year olds) take in all this seriousness by injecting an awful lot of fun into The Big League. Tommy engages in frequent conversations with his imaginary "good angel/bad angel" duo of hockey commentators Ron McKleen and Don Berry (played with gusto by Calvert and Wojcik - and any similarity to actual CBC hockey commentators is, I'm sure, coincidental). There are also lots of good pratfalls, some farting jokes, and a big dance battle between Ron and Don.
And there is, of course, lots of actual hockey action, as the cast skillfully rollerblade, stickhandle, and slapshot their way across Leanne Foley's fabulous hockey rink set. Audience members sit on the sidelines of the set, literally putting us "rinkside" for all the action.
Which works as an effective reminder that regardless of how we participate in hockey - whether it's on the ice or on the sidelines - we all play a part in the pressure-cooker of "the big league." It's a worthwhile message, and one made entertainingly digestible in MTYP's Big League.
The Big League runs at MTYP through January 26.