‘The Great Leap’ Tackles Bigger Issues Than Basketball 

Tyler Simahk, Barlow Adamson, and Gary Thomas Ng in The Great Leap at Lyric Stage

By Shelley A. Sackett

Award-winning playwright Lauren Yee has skin in the game with her play, ‘The Great Leap,’ now making its Boston premiere at Lyric Stage Company. Her father, a rare 6’1” Asian-American basketball player, was part of the 1981 team the US sent to China for a “friendship game” between Beijing University and the University of San Francisco. The Americans were demolished during the exhibition games.

Yee suspects the team, composed of non-NBA, non-college players, was hand-picked by the Chinese so the Americans would lose. Her father, who recounted his experiences to her as she wrote her play, was very helpful. “On stage, you’ll see a version of my father; it’s not pretending to be him,” Yee says in the program notes.

She sets her drama in 1989, a year that saw rising demonstrations for political and economic reform in Tiananmen Square. Using humor, spicy vernacular and some actual on-stage dribbling sequences, she weaves together an absorbing story while making some astute points about the intersection and consequences of politics, cultural identity and human foibles.

The plot is pretty straightforward.

It is 1989. Manford (an outstanding Tyler Simahk), “the most feared basketball player in Chinatown,” is a pushy and single-minded 17-year-old. The play opens with him confronting the San Francisco University basketball coach, Saul (a first-rate Barlow Adamson), demanding that Saul put him on the team he is taking to China to play in an exhibition match against Beijing University on June 3 and 4.

Saul has heard of Manford, ”the only guy who got thrown out of a game for fighting with his own teammate.” Manford knows a thing or two about Saul, too, and wastes no time striking at Saul’s Achilles’ heel. With an 8-20 losing record, his career is circling the drain. A loss to a Chinese team would finish him. Only Manford can rescue him from this fate.

“I am the most relentless person you ever met,” Manford taunts.

Turns out Coach Saul was at the helm of the team that traveled to Beijing in 1971 to advise a politically appointed amateur, Wen Chang (an outwardly cardboard but inwardly emotive Gary Thomas Ng) about the American game of basketball. This was at the height of the ferocious Cultural Revolution. Wen’s assignment was more about his Communist “rehabilitation” than a perfect job match.

Jihan Haddad, Adamson

Eighteen years later, Saul is headed back for a rematch against Wen. Manford’s mission is to convince Saul that the Americans will lose unless Manford is on the team. He’s better than any point guard Saul has on his SFU roster and he knows what Saul will be facing when he returns to Beijing. “Eighteen years ago, you went as their guest. You’re going back as their enemy,” he warns.

Manford has another reason he needs to return, and that hidden secret drives the ending’s delicious plot twist and would be an unconscionable spoiler to reveal. He has just lost his mother, who fled Beijing before he was born and whom he claims he didn’t really know (she spoke only Chinese). His father was never in the picture. He now lives with the family of his “cousin” Connie (a terrific Jihan Haddad), a 25-year-old graduate student and Manford’s cheerleader and True North.

The rest of the almost two-hour (one intermission) production flips back and forth between 1971 and 1989, filling in the gaps in the storyline and fleshing out its four characters. The flashbacks to 1971 (wonderfully costumed by Seth Bodie) contrast the brash, arrogant Saul and Wen, the hollowed-out victim of a regime he hates but resignedly obeys. Eighteen years later, their positions and perspectives have shifted. Wen is on top of his game and is chomping at the bit to give Saul a taste of the medicine he dished out in 1971.

Yee tackles many big-ticket issues in her play (the human cost of the Cultural Revolution, taking a stand vs standing still, living an authentic life, and cultural identity) and by its end, we understand her four characters and what makes them tick. Although overlong and in need of some editing, “The Great Leap” is greatly satisfying and its ending alone is worth the price of admission.

For tickets and information, go to:www.lyricstage.com

The Great Leap – Written by Lauren Yee. Directed by Michael Hisamoto. Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh. Costume Design by Seth Bodie. Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson. Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston through March 19, 2023.

Lyric Stage’s Superb ‘The Book of Will’ Takes Us Back to the Time of the Bard

Cast of ‘The Book of Will’ at Lyric Stage

By Shelley A. Sackett

Ever wonder about the immediate aftermath of Shakespeare’s death, how his plays were preserved in an era when plays were not considered to be important works of literature, plots were largely constructed by the actors and written out in a ‘fair copy’ for their records by the company scribes, and new plays were churned out at an incredibly fast rate to provide the companies with enough material to keep performing new shows all the time?

Well, wonder no more.

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s must-see production of ‘The Book of Will’ brings the story of Shakespeare’s legacy, and the women and men devoted to creating and preserving it, to life. Director Courtney O’Connor weaves magic from a smart and inspired script by playwright Lauren Gunderson. For two hours and 15 minutes (with intermission), we willingly time travel back to an era of pubs, plays and camaraderie.

Sound Elizabethan and dull? Not a chance! But first, a little more context.

Playwriting then was a little like writing for a sitcom or a soap opera in the modern day, and once a play was performed, the acting companies would only keep the scripts if they felt they might revive them again down the road. If not, they might sell them off to a publishing house, who would try and make a quick profit on them.

Ed Hoopman, Will McGarrahan, Grace Experience, Joshua Wolf Coleman

By Shakespeare’s time, printing was more common, and book publishing was more of a commercial enterprise. Yet, Shakespeare’s plays were not published all together in his own lifetime. John Heminges, Richard Burbage, and Henry Condell, fellow actors in the Kings Men and devoted friends of the Bard, began collecting the various published versions of Shakespeare’s plays, actors’ scripts, and scribal copies, and edited them together into the First Folio, published in 1623.

The whole project was perhaps an attempt to eulogize Shakespeare and make his work last forever. It’s partly these reasons that allowed his writings to become part of the fabric of English culture and language. His works, which most certainly would have been lost, have been read and circulated endlessly and have had a life of their own, though Shakespeare himself is long dead.

Experience, Sarah Newhouse, Shani Farrell

Janie E. Howland’s set, Elisabetta Polito’s costumes and Elizabeth Cahill’s sound design thrust us immediately into the thick of Stratford-on-Avon between 1619 and 1623. From the get-go, the talent and credibility of the actors is obvious. Particularly noteworthy are Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Ben Jonson and others, Will McGarrahan as Richard Burbage and William Jaggard, and the magnificent Ed Hoopman as Henry Condell. (I could listen to Hoopman recite the phone book.)

If Gunderson has strayed from historical fact, it is in her inclusion of women as prominent players in the project. These women are interesting, compelling, ambitious, funny and, in their own ways, powerful. There is not one weak link among the actors. Grace Experience as Alice Heminges (whom she plays with an Audrey Hepburn elegance), Shani Farrell as Elizabeth Condell, and Sarah Newhouse as Rebecca Heminges each bring their own nuances to their roles.

Lest you think this is a play reserved for Shakespeare nerds, think again. Gunderson has infused the script with humor, poetry, pathos and intrigue — ingredients for entertaining theater — as well as factual history.

Experience, Hoopman, Coleman, Fred Sullivan, Jr.

“Shakespeare doesn’t need much help in being revered. He needs help in being human. That’s the real heart of this story,” Gunderson said in an interview. “It really has to be the emotional reason that these people did this almost impossible thing. It comes down to their loves and friendships that really provide the engine for this effort.”

“The Book of Will.” Written by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland; Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design by Christopher Brushberg; Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill. Produced by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 140 Clarendon St., Boston through March 27.

For more information and tickets, go to: https://www.lyricstage.com/