I'm generally a fan of playwright Steven Dietz's cunningly constructed, verbally agile and often thought-provoking theater pieces, but I was surprised by Honus and Me. Although it wasn't listed as part of the Aurora Fox's children's series, it turns out that Dietz adapted the play from a book by Dan Gutman for kids in their early teens, and those kids probably represent the best audience for it.
Joey is a young boy who's passionate about baseball but too insecure and distracted to succeed as a player; he's particularly troubled by his parents' divorce. To earn a bit of money, and at his mother's urging, he agrees to clean the attic of an elderly neighbor, Miss Young, for the sum of $10. He's a little afraid of this neighbor, whom he thinks might be a witch, but she turns out to be nothing of the sort. In her attic, Joey finds a rare baseball card, the T-206 Honus Wagner, which is worth well over two million dollars. And at this point, the dialogue starts to sound like an instructive after-school special. Should Joey return the card to Miss Young, which his mother insists is the honorable thing to do, despite the fact that Miss Young has told him everything in the attic is trash and he can keep anything he finds there? Or should he keep and sell the card, ending his family's financial struggles and — as he desperately hopes — reuniting his mother and father?
Honus and Me
Presented by the Aurora Fox through July 20, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, www.aurorafox.org.
All of these characters, with the exception of Joey himself, are cardboard figures. Miss Young is the kind of acerbic but reassuringly chuckly figure we expect to find in children's books, and Mom and Dad are so nice, so polite to each other and so supportive of their son that it's hard to figure out why they ever disagreed enough to divorce. And it's impossible to believe that a struggling single mother would urge her son to toss away their one chance for security without a moment's soul-searching or doubt. The plot, too, is simplistic, and has some fairly large logical gaps, but it gets more interesting when we discover that there's quite a bit more to the Honus Wagner baseball card than its monetary value. Wagner himself suddenly pops up in Joey's bedroom and, later, helps the boy move backward in time to witness the 1909 World Series.
Like his script, director John Ashton doesn't seem to have quite settled on whether he's working for kids or adults. Several roles are filled by teenagers, which makes the production feel amateurish, though it may increase its accessibility for young people. Then again, I didn't see anyone in the audience who looked under fifty. Jack Wefso gives Joey a certain goofy charm, but he's also a bit too cute, generally acting more like a grownup's idea of an adolescent than the real, breathing thing itself. Yet Christopher Reid and Suzanne Conners Nepi play Joey's parents with pleasantly understated realism, and Bev Newcomb-Madden is a fairly centered and amusing Miss Young. Tupper Cullum's Honus Wagner is the best thing in the production, a rough-hewn, tobacco-chewing guy who nonetheless possesses an almost elegant athleticism. Cullum's performance, along with the obvious passion for baseball of authors Gutman and Dietz, eventually brings a modicum of magic to the evening.