Catching Cobb’s complicated times, talent and spirit

BY DYLAN SKRILOFF

STONY POINT–Penguin Repertory Theatre marked its 40th birthday June 30, 2017 with the opening night of “Cobb,” directed by Joe Brancato for the third time overall, second at Penguin Rep.

The show takes place in a purgatory-like afterlife where three stages of Cobb’s spirit tussle with each other and a black ballplayer Oscar Charleston, known in his day as “The Black Ty Cobb,” plays the foil to all three. As much as the play is a commentary on Cobb’s life and times it also is a psychological look at how a man’s self-image changes over the years of his life.

The Stony Point show is performed beautifully by Stephen Bradbury, an elderly cancer-patient Cobb intent on forgetting most of the bad things and holding on to the good things from life, Todd Lawson, a middle-aged and very intellectual, stubborn and fiesty Cobb, Andy Striph, “The Georgia Peach” at his fiery worst, only 18-years-old, and Damian Thompson as Charleston.

The show is a must-see for local theater lovers, as well as baseball fans. Being that it’s the All Star break, it could be the perfect time to check out a play about America’s pastime.

The life, times and career of Cobb are ripe for the treatment given by the script of Lee Blessing. Cobb stands only behind Babe Ruth in batting credentials amongst early 20th century major league baseball players.

His story is almost as compelling as Ruth’s own.

Cobb, the son of a state senator,  spurned his father’s wishes by pursuing a baseball career.  Tragically, only weeks before he became a major league player with the Detroit Tigers  his mother shot his father under mysterious circumstances.  The best explanation of the situation put forward was Mr. Cobb, suspecting his wife of having an affair, had been snooping around the outside of the house to catch her in the act.

In so doing, Mrs. Cobb claimed he had taken the appearance of an intruder whom she shot and killed. Questions swirled whether she had actually been caught in the act and what really happened. Cobb’s mother was acquitted in a trial.

During the play Cobb argues with himself and remembers many details differently depending on his age. It is a fascinating look at a man, our great national pastime and the history of America itself, especially race relations.

Fueled by the mix of elite pedigree and personal tragedy, Cobb applies a higher level of strategy to the game of baseball and helps to create the game as we know it.

He has a proud spirit and is fighting to be remembered. Just as he bragged of making baseball what it is, he bragged of successful business investments owed to his good eye and acumen.

Yet he seemed to fail in personal relationships that mattered the most to him, like his marriage. It is not clear whether Cobb was exceptionally violent or racist for a man of his times, but he certainly would be considered both by today’s standards. Charleston points out many of Cobb’s alleged cruel displays toward people in general, including several blacks.

Cobb tries to ignore Charleston not simply because he picks at Cobb’s scabs, but because ultimately he is a threat to his legacy. It is the same tarnish worn by all pre-integration ballplayers: they never faced off with the most talented black ballplayers.

The play shows that Charleston represented a generation of great athletes who had no fair way to measure their excellence. History tells Cobb’s story in numbers. Charleston and other great talents never had a chance to tell their story in numbers and many were only known by nicknames like “The Black Ty Cobb,” in Charleston’s case. They had to make a living as barn stormers, but were just as talented as the best white ball players.

“Cobb” was staged by Brancato in 1995 at Penguin and 2000 at Melting Pot Theater in Manhattan. After the Melting Pot Theater run in 2000, Academy-Award winning actor Kevin Spacey took the play to the Lucille Lortel Theatre, winning a 2001 Drama Desk award for Best Ensemble, and then to LA in 2002 with the late Garry Marshall.

In four decades, Penguin’s founder and artistic director Brancato along with executive director Andrew Horn and many, many supporters and staff members along the way  have created a haven of professional theater in Rockland County staged out of a little 19th century barn.

Somehow as a young man Brancato looked at that old barn and saw the future. What Penguin Rep has manifested since is a testament to the power of Brancato’s vision, as well as the talent and hard work of so many who have been along for the ride.

The play is showing this weekend and next at Penguin Rep Theatre, 7 Crickettown Road, Stony Point. Visit: https://www.penguinrep.org/

Other crew: Andrew H. Horn, executive director; Christopher Thompson, scenic design; Christopher Metzger, costume design; Christina Watanabe, lighting design; William Neal, lighting and sound design; Stephanie Klapper, casting.