Every week there seems to be another news story about the dangers of NFL football. The average career length for an outfield offensive player (running back, wide receiver) is under three years. Concussions and other repetitive injuries reduce life expectancy for veterans who manage longer careers. Concurrently, there is a growing chorus of fans bemoaning the rule changes designed to protect players: restrictions on type and timing of hits, changing the ball position at kickoff.
InterAct Theatre Company consistently produces plays addressing hot cultural topics. ASSASSIN, now onstage at the Adrienne Theater, takes an intimate look at a legacy of the NFL’s hard-hitting culture. Playwright David Robson based his tightly written new play on the story of Jack “Assassin” Tatum, who hit wide receiver Daryl Stingley so hard in a 1978 preseason game that he severed Stingley’s spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed.
Robson has fictionalized the characters, so Frank Lucas (Brian Anthony Wilson) is the retired ex-Oakland Raiders safety. Just checked in to a Chicago hotel room (well-executed set by Dirk Durossette), he meets Lewis (Dwayne A. Thomas), the lawyer of the wheelchair-bound wide receiver, hoping for a lucrative TV meeting with his client.
ASSASSIN meanders through an emotional minefield; and though some notes ring hollow or untrue, Wilson and Thomas (directed by Seth Reichgott) hold our interest through shifting motivations and painful revelations. Wilson is powerful as a former star whose life is drifting to dissolution. Unapologetic but not unremorseful (“our bodies collided, that’s it, the rest wasn’t up to me”), Frank has been defined by an injury he caused while doing what he was paid to do. After overplaying the subtler opening stages as an unsympathetic Lewis, Thomas nails the high notes in a moving climax.
Robson’s play does not try to address all the nuances of NFL violence: neither character holds the league’s fans responsible for the tragic injuries. Nor do they condemn the league, or the sport itself. Instead, ASSASSIN attempts—mostly successfully— a 80-minute psychological study into two men linked by one moment of violence, and how they come to terms with that. [InterAct Theatre Company with Act II Playhouse, Adrienne Theatre] January 18-February 10, 2013, interact.org; [Act II Playhouse] February 19-March 17, 2013, act2.org.
Previously published on Stage Magazine.