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The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy; Baby With the Bathwater

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THE SIGNAL SEASON OF DUMMY HOY

Commons Theatre

BABY WITH THE BATHWATER

Reflections Theatre

There's a charming scene near the end of Allen Meyer and Michael Nowak's fine new play, The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy, in which an aspiring sportswriter explains to a baseball player the notion of "poetic license." The journalist -- a woman, or in the parlance of the athletes a "canary" -- has elaborated on the remarkable feats of the ball player -- who is a deaf-mute, a "dummy" -- by writing that he made a particularly difficult catch by jumping on the back of a horse. But there wasn't even a horse on the field, he protests; that, she responds, is "poetic license."

Though it's based on a true story, The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy takes plenty of poetic license. The female reporter, for example, is an invented character called A.C. -- the A standing for Aliza, which, one notes in the advance publicity, is the name of coauthor Meyer's deaf daughter. And the very premise on which the play is based -- that "Dummy" Hoy, who overcame hearing disability to become a baseball star at the turn of the century, was the man who invented the arm and hand signals that umpires use to declare "strike," "ball," "out," and "safe" -- is disputed, and probably unprovable. But baseball, after all, is full of apocryphal inspirational tall tales, and the facts of Dummy Hoy's life more than merit the attention this play gives him. In a lifetime that stretched from the presidency of Abraham Lincoln to that of John Kennedy (he died in 1961, five months short of his hundredth birthday), William Ellsworth Hoy accomplished a great deal both as an athlete and as an achiever who overcame disability. Small and slim, quick footed and quick-witted, Hoy left his job as a cobbler in 1886 to become a professional baseball player. He tried out for, and landed a spot on, the Oshkosh, Wisconsin, team in the minor-status Northwest League, and though his first year was weak, he stuck with it and considerably improved his playing in the second season -- a result, this play maintains, of having persuaded the umpires to use visual signals to call plays. (When umpires merely shouted "strike" or "ball," Hoy had to read their lips, interrupting his concentration and making him susceptible to "fast pitching" by the opposing team. Popular with the fans, Hoy eventually moved into the major leagues; he played with the Chicago White Sox in 1900 -- their first year -- and again in 1901, the year the Sox' American League forced its way into major-league status.

To go so far, in a time when the handicap of deafness was acutely exacerbated by general ignorance and prejudice (the first college for deaf students had only been founded in 1864), Dummy Hoy must have been a man of character and tenacity as well as exceptional athletic talent. The handicapped generally (and rightly) feel they must be better than everyone else in order to be just as good as everyone else. Dummy Hoy examines its protagonist's sense of isolation, both aural and emotional, and his need to overcome that isolation in order to become a team player in baseball and, yes, in life. To its credit, the play never succumbs to the sentimentality that its theme might invite; its tone is light, funny, and tough-minded. And, happily, this is more than just a play about sports (though it revels in the noisiness and exhilaration of the field). The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy explores, most entertainingly, the subject of human communications in its many variations: verbal and nonverbal, man to man and boy to girl, successful and failed. The writers make imaginative use of not only words but mime and sign language, not only dialogue but interior monologue, not only sound but silence: in the play's most extraordinary sequence, when Hoy's first tryout for the Oshkosh team is greeted with a riot of dissension from the uncouth players, the action shifts suddenly into a silent mode, taking us into Hoy's head as he watches the madly gesticulating men around him, the fury without the sound. For the hearing audience, the scene is weirdly funny and frightening at the same time, as we experience the alienation, the ironic detachment, and also the heightened awareness of potential danger that the deaf must feel as they make their way through the world. (Several performances signed for the hearing impaired are scheduled during the play's run, incidentally.)

Dummy Hoy relies heavily on its lead actor to make its point: it is crucial that the way Dean Patrick Cannavino, as Hoy, communicates to his fellow actors and to the audience is more interesting and pleasurable to attend than anything else in the play. Cannavino is a sheer delight -- brimming with intelligence and physical grace; highly expressive in his face, hand, and body language; and intently responsive to the action around him. His work makes the audience more aware of the other actors' performances, the interaction between the words they speak and the moves they make. To an extent, Dummy Hoy is about the theater, and about spectator sports as theater; the play's lovely final scene shows a team of modern-day sportscasters performing verbally on the air while communicating to each other in a comic barrage of body talk.

There are numerous flaws in the play as it now stands (the Commons Theatre Company's current production is its world premiere). As interesting as the basic story of Hoy's role in baseball is, it isn't particularly dramatic, so the play tends to meander episodically along to its conclusion -- Hoy's decision to approach the umpire with his suggested hand signals -- rather than proceeding to a gripping climax. The parallel between the deaf-mute athlete and the woman sportswriter, both seeking to overcome the prejudices of the macho majority (and their own prejudices, as well), is drawn too blatantly; though acted with spunk and style by Rebecca MacLean, A.C. isn't a fully developed character; her function in the narrative seems too schematic. And the eccentricities of the other ball players -- especially as played to the hilt by the fine ensemble, with Rick Carter as a bully and Cleto Agusto as his hick sidekick making especially strong impressions -- invite much richer development by the writers.

These problems don't matter much in the short run. The Commons staging, cleanly directed by India Cooper, is well worth seeing. Especially with summer rolling around, this is a perfect family show, instructive, fun, and never condescending. By virtue of its offbeat subject and Dean Cannavino's sheer charm and talent, this is one of the highlights of the season. More important, the script's flaws are eminently fixable; with a serious rewrite, The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy could have a strong future artistically and commercially.

The program notes for the Reflections Theatre Company's current offering, Christopher Durang's Baby With the Bathwater, state that the production "brings a new theatrical style to the RTC stage." Well, yes and no. Durang's play, a stinging, absurdist black comedy in the vein of Edward Albee's The American Dream -- only with a far more personal edge -- may be new territory for Reflections, which has concentrated primarily on American realist-expressionist dramas such as Lanford Wilson's "Talley Trilogy" and The Rimers of Eldritch. But the Durang play, so savage and emotionally high-pitched in its indictment of bad parents and the apathetic society that allows them to inflict their damage, here receives the same kind of stolid, community-theater treatment as Reflections' past productions. As staged by Page Hearn (a member of the Reflections company and one of its better actors, but no great shakes as a director), Durang's bracing script isn't hampered, but neither is it illuminated. Except for one scene -- a horrifically funny dialogue between three mothers on a park bench, exposing the reluctance of Americans to "interfere" with even the most obvious cases of unfit parenting -- the show is neither very funny nor very disturbing, both of which Durang intended it to be. Reflections is an ambitious company; it owns its own building in Andersonville, and it has undertaken noteworthy projects such as the entire "Talley Trilogy" in rotating repertory this past winter. But if artistic director Michael Ryczek wants his troupe to be taken seriously, he's got to start matching their aspirations with a more professional, more compelling level of performance.

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