Most fictional characters in mental institutions struggle to get out, but when Dana Fielding, the artist-protagonist of The Sweetest Swing in Baseball, arrives in one after a suicide attempt, she settles right in. Battered by the response to her latest exhibit, a couple of negative reviews and a general sense that her career is over -- not to mention the fact that her longtime lover has just left her -- Dana welcomes the shelter provided by the hospital. And she finds common ground with two fellow residents: a homicidal psychotic named Gary, temporarily pacified by large amounts of medication, and Michael, a sweet-natured gay alcoholic.
In this Denver Center Theatre Company production, the institution is an absolutely gorgeous place. Set designer Alexander Dodge, working with lighting wizard Charles R. MacLeod, has managed to convey the coldness of a clinical setting -- from the fire extinguisher recessed in the wall to the placement of table and chairs -- while also making it feel like a site for genuine healing. The walls may be the requisite hospital green, but it's the tender green of furled springtime leaves. During scene changes, the bright lights of the recreation room go down, and the glow at the high, square windows fades slowly, almost reluctantly, like an unspoken promise. Light and shadow stripe the stage -- perhaps the bars of a cage, perhaps the coat of a wild animal running free.
Some of the best moments in Rebecca Gilman's play occur when Dana interacts with her fellow residents, becoming Alice in an institutional Wonderland to Gary's caustic Mad Hatter and Michael's sleepy Dormouse. As Dana helps Gary with his therapeutic drawing, describing how the concept of negative space applies to the elbow curve of a murderer's knife-wielding arm and calmly explaining that the victim's blood needs to reflect light, you can see the drawn, miserable woman who first entered the hospital becoming competent, curious and alive before your eyes. Other terrific scenes: Dana's description of the octagonal tiles in the bathroom where she tried to kill herself; Gary's bitter speech about how the world tears down people of genuine achievement (though it does seem a little out of character).
The Sweetest Swing in Baseball
the Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through May 26, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Dana's insurance company will pay for no more than ten days of rehabilitation, and, desperate to stay, she decides to pretend she's delusional. Helped by the advice of her new friends, she identifies herself to her therapist as the alcohol-plagued baseball star Darryl Strawberry. This is one of those plot points that forces you to consciously suspend disbelief, since The Sweetest Swing in Baseball is primarily a comedy of art-world manners, and it carries no suggestion of a fantastical or magically symbolic undertow. Fortunately, the writing is humorous and grounded enough to carry the conceit, though the execution is sometimes a little problematic. When a mental patient claims to be Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ or the Queen of England, therapists don't usually respond by quizzing him on Gallic campaigns, exactly how Lazarus was raised from the dead or whether breakfast in Buckingham Palace features eggs or kippers. Delusion is delusion. It doesn't make much sense to present Dana's ignorance of baseball as an actual problem, as Gilman does, but her exchanges with her therapists are pretty funny, as one of them remains grimly unconvinced and a second sympathetically plays along.
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Impersonating Strawberry gives Dana courage and a sense of freedom. She rediscovers her voice as an artist and begins creating comic paintings of chickens playing baseball. These are admired by her dueling dealers and win her back her spot on the walls of a trendy gallery. For Dana, the paintings are partly vehicles of real expression, partly a raised finger to an art world that has rejected her and is too pretentious to be able to tell art from kitsch. But there's a sting in this clever play's tail: Dana has fun slagging off her tormenters and insisting on the primacy of the artist over the middleman, but we eventually discover that she has found her freedom at the cost of what's deepest in her work and in herself.
Director Wendy C. Goldberg has created a production as bright, clean and lively as a cartoon strip. Anne Kennedy's costumes are perfect, from the dowdy, I-don't-give-a-shit-what-I-look-like outfit in which Dana enters the mental hospital to the hilarious get-up of gallery owner Rhonda -- a cheeky, body-hugging leotard dissected by a soft leather belt, and shoes high-heeled enough for a suicide leap. It helps that Megan Byrne, who plays Rhonda, has the willowy body and high-arched feet of the ex-dancer the character is supposed to be, topped by a fall of improbably beautiful gold-red hair, and that she's also a lively and appealing actress.
Caitlin O'Connell is supposed to be unlikable as art dealer Erica, but there's a warmth to her personality that plays pleasantly against the script. Sam Gregory deploys his talent for waspish and sarcastic self-containment brilliantly as Gary, and Brad Heberlee makes Michael smart, charming and, at various times, either sophisticated or pathetically lost. Kathleen McCall is very fine in the first act when she communicates Dana's intelligence and despair in a tight, tough, muted performance, but she lost me when she began impersonating Strawberry -- perhaps because this plot turn is not very credible, but also because of a brittleness and lack of vulnerability in her portrayal.
Still, The Sweetest Swing in Baseball is a hit: a witty, entertaining evening of theater, with just a tinge of bitterness and rage to load the bases.