REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, by Rod Serling, directed by John Mossman, is currently in production at The Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand Avenue, Chicago, through March 31, 2019.
Originally penned in 1956 as a live television drama and winning an Emmy for Serling in 1957, the script was adapted and produced into a famous film that came out in 1962 with Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Mickie Rooney and Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay). Requiem is a melodrama, the tough and heart-wrenching saga of a “punchy” but proud boxer forced into retirement. It’s a superb story, filled with all the ugly elements of a racket in which layers of corrupt men live off the sweat, pain and agony of others. It’s beautifully written, endlessly compelling, and in this version, thoroughly realized.
The stage set is sparse, a square white “ring”, a few tables and chairs, but they are enough to hold the continuous action. In an extremely clever bit of staging that showcases brilliant fight choreography, the entire cast dances/boxes around the periphery and/or changes scenery in darkened, hushed lights between mini-acts while an intensely urban soundscape charges the atmosphere. The costumes are period-centric, clever, and realistic. Kudos to Kevin Hagan for the up-close-and-personal scenic design; Zachary Wagner, costume designer, for dressing the roles so adroitly; Collin Helou, lighting designer for changing day to night; Petter Wahlback, sound designer, for the clamor and noise that created a rich background.
There is nothing dated about the production; although the ambience is immediately redolent of a time and a place, cleverly called forth with accents applied to dialogue, the effect is timeless, the emotions of Everytime and Everyplace. The tale portrayed is heartbreaking and yet uplifting; tautly and unsparingly directed by Mossman, it will wring you dry with pathos, make you smile with its innocence, and send you home with a sense of honor palpating in your breast. All of the characters are presented as caricatures of themselves and yet endearingly human, whether smarmy and hateful, washed-up and pitiful, a boozy stumblebum, a virginal almost-willing lover, or a malevolent gangster.
Mountain McClintock, in a break your heart and make you proud portrayal by Mark Pracht, hears- through his appallingly battered cauliflower ears- that he has been repeatedly betrayed by his idol/manager, Maish Rennick. The perennially worried, incessantly aggravated Maish, played with astonishing hard-bitten realism by Patrick Thornton, downplays the seriousness of the problem after the doctor (a terrific New Yorkesque world weary cameo by Mike Rogalski) says another blow to the face will blind him. The very real presence of this impending horror doesn’t stop Maish from continuing to try to sell Mountain- repackaged as a rigged wrestling match joke- and it doesn’t stop McClintock from saving Maish’s skin at the expense of his own dignity and safety.
The hero is scarred and beaten up, bloody yet unable to imagine life outside the ring after 17 years of boxing. He was “a contender…almost the heavyweight champion of the world.” He’s taken a horrible beating in a gruesome fight as the play opens. With the help of a kind and proper job placement counselor, (Annie Hogan, in a vibrant performance as the straight girl who doesn’t quite have the courage to love Mountain) he tries to enter the non-pugilistic world, but is unable to make the transition, with Maish, in debt to the mob, on his back.
Other memorable characters in the sinister world created in this extremely intimate theater setting include: Laura Coleman, hilarious and poignant as Golda, the aging hooker who loves Maish, but has no illusions; Mountain’s trainer, Army, played with warm compassion by Todd Wojcik as a stand-up guy who loves him like a son; David Vogel, chillingly and understatedly dangerous as the threatening gangster Greeny; Sean Harklerode, memorable as Charlie, the bartender (and cop) with the heart of gold; Reid Coker, delightfully awful as the small-time weaselly boxing promoter Leo; and John Laflamboy, too wonderfully gruesome as the nefarious wrestling promoter, Perelli.
After 111 fights without taking a dive, Mountain inevitably enters the wrestling ring dressed up foolishly, possibly going to his doom, but knowing that he is uncorrupted and the bigger, better man. This is a take-no-prisoners story and a don’t-miss show.
The Artistic Home is known both for new works as well as for innovative productions of rarely produced classics, like Requiem For A Heavyweight. For information and tickets, go to www.theartistichome.org
All photos by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux