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Pictured: Erich Peltz and Bryce Saxon. Photo by kClare McKellaston.
By Elizabeth Ellis
A friend of mine lived in a small town in Texas for several years. She often spoke of how, like in the film and TV show Friday Night Lights, everyone happily arranged their lives and activities around the high school football team. To the residents of this community, high school football provided a major source of pride and identification. Even if you didn’t play football, you tried your best to find or create a tangential relationship to the team, the coaches, and the players: such was the significance of the team. When I asked my friend, who had moved there from a major metropolitan area, how she felt about football being so important aspect of life there, she shook her head, gave a half-smile, and said, “Small town, small goals, small dreams.”
Playwright Rachel Bykowski beautifully illustrates the world of small town high school football and its influence on its fans in 20% Theatre Company’s production of TIGHT END. In countless small towns across the US, where most citizens live most of their lives and plant deep roots in the community, high school football is life. For student Ash (don’t call her Ashley) Miller, the daughter of a late legendary quarterback for Westmont High, her life focuses on trying out for and making the Westmont football team. TIGHT END follows Ash through her four years in high school, moving from skinny kid whose father’s football jersey engulfs her to a fearsome tight end and valued member of the team. Of course, Ash’s journey is fraught with complications; Coach D can’t believe that a girl would be able to be tough enough to make the team, let alone play on a regular basis with and against bigger and stronger boys. Quarterback Sam Jones, also harbor doubts about Ash’s ability to protect him on the field. Darla, Ash’s mother, struggles with the desire to love and support her daughter, but knows how damaging it could be for Ash to try to live up to her late father’s beloved reputation.
Kallie Noelle Rolison’s sensitive direction finds the many moments of humor in a story rife with tough issues and questions. The cast is uniformly superb: Bryce Saxon imbues Ash with all the teenage bluff and bluster of a high-energy athlete ready to take on the entire world, yet still finds the fragility and occasional moments of self-doubt familiar to every teenage girl. Darla, played with quiet strength and hope by Rachel Mock, beautifully shows the hurt and unrealized dreams of a teenage mother who wants to make her daughter’s dreams a reality. Patrick Pantelis’ wonderfully layered Coach D alternates between infuriating quasi-feminist and wise and supportive coach, while Erich Peltz shows the complexity of a young athlete learning that there is more to life than football, and some of it is difficult and beautiful.
Playwright Bykowski’s script describes the difficulty so familiar to trail-blazers, especially women who aren’t taken seriously. Ash’s attempts to be “one of the guys” begins with her defeminizing her name to “Ash Smash.” Bykowski has created authentic characters and a storyline in conflict: Ash wants to prove herself, but it means doing so at an unknown and unimaginable price. Darla has chosen to stay in Westmont, but wants more for Ash than just high school fame and glory. Coach D doesn’t seem to mind “women on top” and works with Ash to make her an asset to the team, but later sabotages Ash’s role and her hard work. Sam is friends and teammates with Ash, but knowingly sets her up for a trap that ends in a violent attack. The characters don’t see that possibilities and choices exist outside of this limited world, which helps cement the emotional claustrophobia of the small town experience.
A plot twist near the end of the play focuses on reducing Ash to a girl and not a football player nor teammate, and I found this understandable, but not entirely plausible. Still, this play entertains by straddling the space between those dinosaurs who still think women simply can’t do certain things, and the forward thinkers whose ideas and perspectives will long outlast the dinosaur points of view. You’ll leave the theater thinking about Ash for a long time, and hoping she won a scholarship to play football in college.
TIGHT END runs through June 3rd. For more information visit twentypercentchicago.com.