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A soft double play

Theater Review: “Tinker to Evers to Chance” at Geva Nextstage 

A soft double play

One of the themes underlying two of Geva's plays this season seems to be -- as the PR for the latest Nextstage production has it -- "the redemptive power of baseball." This particular kind of redemption is achieved not by good works, but by faith -- eternal optimism directed toward perpetually losing teams. Last winter's "Last Gas" was partly about undiscouraged belief in the Boston Red Sox; in "Tinker to Evers to Chance" the attention is on the Chicago Cubs, who won the World Series in 1907 and 1908, but have not come anywhere near since the team's last appearance in 1945. Despite their team's lack of Series mojo, fans hold on to their dreams -- and writer Mat Smart's new play tells us about the interactions of three of them.

"Tinker to Evers to Chance" revolves around a mother, Vanessa, and her daughter, Lauren (Emily Kitchens), who are obsessed Cubs fans -- in fact the daughter's given name is Everly Lauren in tribute to Johnny Evers, one-third of the Cubs' turn-of-the-century double play combo, and once-famous poem, that gives the play its name.  Vanessa, or just Nessa, and Lauren never miss a Cubs opening day; in fact, it's one of two times in the year that Lauren comes from New York to see her mother.

At the play's beginning, Lauren returns to Nessa's apartment near Wrigley Field for the annual ritual, only to find her mother gone; her caretaker RJ (James Craven) is the last person to see her. Lauren thinks RJ has the answer to Nessa's disappearance -- which is partially true.  She has left some clues in the draft of a play she has written about Johnny Evers' life and her family's obsession with him. This tells the story of a family heirloom -- one of Evers' actual Cubs jerseys, given to Nessa's mother by the great man himself. But the draft's depiction of Evers at the end of his life, lonely, sick, and in love with his nurse, hints at Nessa's feelings toward RJ. When the "Tinker to Evers to Chance" ends, Nessa is still at large, but the experience of sorting out her life has taken RJ and Lauren from adversaries to friends -- and, need it be said, Cubs fans through thick and thin.

As a play "Tinker to Evers to Chance" is more a leisurely run around the bases rather than an out-of-the park home run. The basic situation may not be very original, but Mat Smart does catch the obsessive love of detail held by true baseball fans (and after all, that word is short for "fanatic"), and I do like the idea of a woman nearing the end of her life trying to make sense of it through art. The unseen character often sounds more interesting than the two characters onstage.

The slender story includes readings and acted-out scenes from Nessa's play, the short Franklin P. Adams poem mentioned above, and a funny interchange between two radio broadcasters, one of whom a near-suicidal Cubs fan. These bits and pieces are fine in themselves, but they seem to be padding for a short play (even with a 15-minute intermission, "Tinkers to Evers to Chance" is over in well under two hours).

The play's best scene begins the second act -- a touching and funny flashback, one of two in the play, showing an encounter between the aging, ailing Evers and the spunky 17-year-old Nessa, who shows him the original jersey given to her mother. Kitchens and Craven are very good throughout "Tinker to Evers to Chance," but this engaging scene is a particularly neat double play that brings out the best in both actors, in Mat Smart, and in director Sean Daniels.

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