While Broadway is showing a play about the legendary football icon Vince Lombardi, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival is bringing back -- for a short revival on the Festival Stage -- its record-setting 2009 production of Michael Vigilant's Bear Country, a tribute to the University of Alabama's Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.
The transfer from the Octagon Theatre, while it loses some of the intimacy of the smaller space, has kept the play intact and managed to explore Vigilant's text to reveal a wider range of relationships and characterizations both of its central character, the "older" Bryant masterfully played by Rodney Clark, and the "younger" version played by William Peden, who are supported by James Bowen and Christopher Burns who each play a number of roles with unflinching honesty.
Director Tim Rhoze and his capable cast bring us the now familiar story of Bryant's humble beginnings and his journey to iconic status as a football coach [with obstacles along the way], retaining always the simple humanity of the man who beleived in good sportsmanship on the field and good behavior off it...a class act.
Though the play is filled with historically accurate details and football statistics, this is not a play about football; rather, it is a play about a man -- one who has flaws and is often arrogant, but whose influence is felt even today. From what we see on stage, it is not surprising that Bryant's legendary impact on his players is treasured.
Playing to an almost full house on Katherine Ross's simple set, we are first introduced to "the Bear" as he is packing up his Tuscaloosa office on his retirement from the U of A, and reminisces about the important moments in his life that brought him to this point.
In his signature hat & blazer, Mr. Clark looks uncannily like the man himself, allowing us instant access to his story. But it is not just the physical similarity that is striking. As the two acts recount the ups and downs of Bryant's career with honesty and humor, Mr. Clark's stature, his commanding presence [especially as he addresses us from behind his desk], and his ability to engage the audience in ordinary human details creates a powerful presence: a man to admire.
Mr. Burns -- who plays nine roles -- easily segues from one to another, and imbues each with a distinct personality: Bryant's uncle who introduced him to football while listening to a game on the radio, no-nonsense coaches, television reporters, attorneys who try to trap him into confessing to fixing a game are all given full force by Mr. Burns's ability to instantly change demeanor and truthfully depict each one.
Mr. Bowen's impersonations of Bryant's boyhood friend as well as a small-town restaurant owner where Bryant once had a helping of chittlins, are presented with such natural charm, and are contrasted by his depiction of a hard-nosed student protestor demanding the inclusion of Blacks on Alabama's football team.
Mr. Peden's characterization of Young Bryant from teenage through early coaching jobs capitalizes on his ability to develop credibly in age and experience, from a gawky teenager to a settled adult. Along the way, we see him encounter the coaches who molded him by demanding his committment to the game and to sportsmanship.
Together, this ensemble is grounded in Mr. Vigilant's narrative and Mr. Clark's ability to get to the soul of the man...a man who loved his parents, wife & family; a man who drank Coca-Cola and ate Golden Flake potato chips; a man who kept his promises. As he says in the play: "Remember this if anything -- It doesn't cost anything to be nice...to be honest...to be a man of your word."