Those of us whose familiarity with baseball extends to having learned by heart the lyrics to Damn Yankees will find enough rich theatricality here to make the sports elements a mere means to an end in getting to know the American legend that was Ty Cobb. On a stage of ruddy, mounded, diamond-shaped flooring, his life plays out as a dream—full not only of reminiscences of an extraordinary athlete's life but also of the regrets, explanations, and conscience of ordinary men.
Retired in 1928, deceased in 1961, Cobb still holds some of the 90 records he set. Yet he is apparently remembered as much for his unapologetic brutality as for those records. When playwright Lee Blessing introduces us to him, Cobb is an old man in robe and slippers, dead or dying, dreaming, soon joined by his memories of himself as the young Georgia Peach and the middle-aged Ty. Under the direction of Joe Brancato, the three ages are played seamlessly by three actors masterfully cast as much for their ample talents as for their physical similarities. Only occasionally does Blessing's conceit becomes distractingly self-conscious and self-mocking; otherwise it is finely rendered—beautifully shaped and poetically, sometimes musically, voiced.
Michael Cullen plays the old Mr. Cobb, bitter from head to toe, resentful, beset by cancer. Cullen hints at Cobb's facial paralysis yet never muffles his dialogue, and behind the shuffling gait we can feel the ghosts of those superhuman physical powers. Facing mortality, Mr. Cobb is defensive, angered at having to confront his demons. As young Peach, Matthew Mabe reveals the direct, shameless, callow Cobb, taunting his elders, swinging and sliding. And yet, as the middle-aged Ty, Michael Sabatino offers the performance in which we most see the uncertainty behind the brutish behavior that gives this Cobb, whether true to life, a deeper theatricality.
At times they are three yapping dogs fighting over the bone that is the right to reveal Cobb's unconscious. So a fourth character appears onstage, who adds as much intelligence to the piece as he adds heart: Oscar Charleston, better known to history as the black Ty Cobb. In a glorious portrayal by Richard Brooks, Charleston is the conscience of Cobb. Because of national prejudice and perhaps because Cobb feared Charleston's prowess, the two never matched bats and gloves in real life; Blessing gives Cobb and us the chance to learn from the past.
The play might have worked just as well on a simple stage, but it is here enhanced by scenic designer Matthew Maraffi, who gives us the ruddy look of baseball diamonds the nation over, costume designer Daryl A. Stone, who recreates a history of uniforms, and lighting designer Jeff Nellis' rosy haze of remembrance.
Blessing gives us thrilling stats aplenty. But more important, for the duration, he offers us the experience of having walked a mile in another man's spikes.
"Cobb," presented by the Falcon Theatre, Kevin Spacey, and Bernie Morris, in association with Trigger Street Productions, at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive. Burbank. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m. Sept. 14-Oct. 6. $25-37.50. (818) 955-8101.