For a theater company whose next production is a feel-good musical about plucky women who travel the country promoting Spam, it was a brave decision to tackle the complicated legacy of Kirby Puckett. The star centerfielder died only last year, and local memories of Puckett are still fresh–memories of his glorious on-field triumphs as well as the damaging allegations he later faced.
“Kirby,” a play written by Syl Jones and directed by Steve Moulds. Runs through November 4 at the History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul. Tickets $25-$30; call (651) 292-4323.
The story of Puckett’s life begs difficult questions about race, celebrity, geography, and of course the perpetual mysteries of sex and romance. The History Theatre’s production of “Kirby,” an original play by Syl Jones, succeeds because Jones and director Steve Moulds understand that it’s sufficient merely to evoke Puckett’s life while putting these topics on the table. With respect to who Puckett was and why he did what he did, the play deftly avoids offering easy answers, even as it raises compelling questions.
The play proceeds through a sequence of scenes inspired by Puckett’s life, featuring characters representing Puckett, his parents, his wife and mistresses, his coaches, and his fans. Depicting these characters as abstractions rather than as real-world people (for example, “Coach” rather than “Tom Kelly”) helps keep the focus on the play’s themes rather than on what actually did or did not happen in the locker room or the bedroom or that infamous bathroom.
Jones and Moulds cannily play to their local audience (in the performance I saw, one of the biggest laughs went to a throwaway line about Dayton’s department stores), and video footage of the actual Puckett is used sparingly and effectively to lend resonance to the onstage material. The performances are uniformly strong, with a winning star turn by Ansa Akyea as Puckett. Shá Cage, as Puckett’s wife, draws remarkable sympathy for a character who is often emotionally chilly. Amid these sensitive performances, the only serious missteps come when fans and sportscasters are depicted with jarring descents into broad comedy and caricature.
The play’s combination of tact and directness is typified by the opening scene. “Coach” walks onstage and cuts to the chase, raising the question of how Kirby Puckett, one of the most famous and beloved men in Minnesota, could possibly find himself getting physical with an unwilling partner in a public restroom. Without excusing Puckett’s behavior, Coach points out that in baseball, a man can make all sorts of errors and still be an all-star. Real life is less forgiving.
Jay Gabler is a writer based in St. Paul, specializing in culture, the arts, and entertainment.