Laura Crotte and Diego Josef in "Under a Baseball Sky." Photo by Rich Soublet II
Baseball as metaphor is a tried and true storytelling device, as uniquely American as the national pastime itself. But its micro-lessons about hitting, throwing and running that become macro-lessons for human beings who feel behind in the count are international. Universal.
Jose Cruz Gonzalez’s “Under a Baseball Sky” is an American story. Where else but in the land of the red, white and blue (and in his play, the land of a newly-elected-to-the-presidency Donald Trump) could a naturalized mother from Mexico be arrested – and ultimately deported – for having a broken taillight? Where else could gentrification tear out, bit by bit, the fabric of a neighborhood, forcing an old woman from her home and reducing a kids’ baseball playing field to a trash heap?
The unnamed Latinx neighborhood in Gonzalez’s world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre is reflective of these deep-rooted injustices and inequities, yet throughout a tale with no shortage of inner pain there is hope, something we all cling to when we’re behind in the count.
Elderly but full of feisty fight, Eli (Laura Crotte in a bravura performance) resides next door to the derelict lot where once her children Paloma and Santiago played ball. There are specters in these midsts, as young Teo (Diego Josef) soon discovers when he begins working for her as part of his probation after threatening the life of a bully at school. In the middle of the two is even-keeled Chava (Joseph Morales), assigned to supervising Teo’s rehabilitation while also looking out for Eli, whom he considers an institution in the neighborhood.
What seems a straightforward enough premise is soon populated (possibly overpopulated) by secrets, tensions and scars of the soul. Eli is not only losing her home and her health but is mourning the untimely loss of both of her grown children and, it turns out, suffering for having betrayed them when she believed as mothers tend to believe that she was protecting them. Teo, meanwhile, agonizes that he is to blame for his mother’s arrest and detention, having been preoccupied with his own crises when he could have been fixing that broken taillight.
It isn’t long before the hard line between Eli and Teo begins to soften. The catalyst? Baseball. A shed on Eli’s property holds baseball keepsakes that a spellbound Teo can scarcely believe. Before long the old woman is putting on a catcher’s mask, crouching with her catcher’s glove and encouraging the boy to show her his fastball. Utterly charming, this is relief from the anguish and self-recriminations otherwise in the air.
In the intimate environs of the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre (on an inspired set by Anna Louizos that will gradually metamorphose) the five actors must navigate a narrative heavy with not only Eli’s and Teo’s personal traumas but the black cloud of Trumpism, the aforementioned beast of gentrification, anti-labor mobsters and even ghosts. This is a LOT packed into one 90-minute affair, the astute direction of James Vasquez and a stellar supporting cast (Ana Nicolle Chavez and Cesar J. Rosado complete the ensemble) aside.
Gonzalez’s script relies more than a few times on well-worn advice from Chava to young Teo, sometimes sounding like what a manager might tell a nervous hitter or a relief pitcher with the bases loaded. The family drama that engulfs Eli, Paloma and Santiago overpowers what Gonzalez wants to say about the importance of baseball in Mexican-American communities, to me the most compelling aspect of “Under a Baseball Sky.”
Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that baseball does prove a balm and a needed catharsis for all involved when it matters most.
A final note of acknowledgement of sound designer Leon Rothenberg, responsible for the atmospheric crack of the bat and thump of fastball into mitt leather that are heard crisply and clearly in the theater-in-the-round. It sounded like baseball. That’s the sound of spring and the hope that accompanies its arrival every year.
“Under a Baseball Sky” runs through March 12 at the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.