Sports dramas are never just about sports; before the game-winning shot swishes in at the final buzzer, coming of age lessons must be learned, emotions stifled must be unleashed, and decades of sexism must be unraveled. The Chicago premiere of Lauren Yee’s basketball drama The Great Leap embodies this approach, taking on a range of complex issues with audience members watching court-side. Yee’s dialogue is witty and moving, and the technical elements shine on Steppenwolf’s upstairs theatre turned basketball court. Yet The Great Leap stretches a bit too far in its reach, resulting in a show that’s engaging but slightly muddled.
The story follows Manford Lum (Glenn Obrero), a hot-headed high school student determined to coerce his way onto the University of San Francisco (USF) men’s basketball team in time for a “friendship” game in Beijing. Though shorter than the average college player and not quite a high school graduate, Manford manages to hit sore spots (and a few sweet shots) to convince struggling coach Saul (Keith Kupferer) to add him to the line-up. But Manford’s motivation for playing soon becomes suspect as his struggle with identity and fraught familial relationships come to light.
Complicating matters further is the fact that its June 1989; the USF team is not only heading toward an opponent that they’ve woefully underestimated but landing in the center of political unrest. The Tiananmen Square protests loom nearby, casting a political shadow over this “friendly” basketball face-off. Saul’s former mentee (at least in Saul’s eyes) and the current coach of Beijing’s team, Wen Chang (James Seol), feels the pressure most intensely--for him, securing a victory for China has consequences far beyond mere disappointment.
There’s a lot of tale to tell in this two hour, four-person play (the fourth character being Manford’s cousin, Connie, played by Deanna Myers), and that’s without giving away two pivotal plot twists. While some of these elements work together, others seem to distract from the piece; the play excels in bringing up difficult subjects but struggles to unpack them. Yee undeniably has a gift, though, for creating layered characters through her sharp dialogue. With the exception of Connie, who unfortunately is left with little to do but alternately chastise and cheer on her rebellious cousin, each character is strongly developed with a unique voice.
Steppenwolf’s scenic, lighting and projection designs can also not be overlooked--these elements create the sense of a high-profile game being played without any real action on the court. The projections adeptly highlight cultural and historical elements as well, offering additional context for several plot points.
Yee takes a lot of shots in The Great Leap, and not all of them make it into the net. But Steppenwolf’s technical triumph and Yee’s quick-witted dialogue keep audiences captivated through the final buzzer. (Emily Schmidt)
Somewhat Recommended ★★
The Great Leap continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through Oct 20. Info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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