Sunday, March 18, 2018

ASF: "Bear Country"

When Michael Vigilant was writing Bear Country, he knew he had to get it right; after all, Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant is idolized in Alabama, and there are a lot of people who knew and worked with him and had versions of virtually any episode in Bryant's life that might make it to the stage. And he had to capture the character of the man beyond the football field.

Brought back for a third run in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's intimate Octagon Theatre [seen previously in 2009 and 2011], Bear Country again features Rodney Clark in the role, with Matt Clevy as a Young Bryant and a Young Coach Bryant, and Seth Andrew Bridges, and Clinton C. Lowe playing all the other characters.

It opens as Coach Bryant is packing up his office on his retirement from the University of Alabama, looking around and picking up an assortment of footballs, photographs, magazine articles, and other items that trigger memories that become the backbone of Vigilant's narrative. -- There are mixed feelings, of course: fond ones as he remembers coach-mentors who gave him sound advice, football triumphs, humorous episodes galore; and unpleasant recalls of interrogations regarding alleged game-fixing and betting, accusations of racism, and the deaths of parents and athletes who meant the world to him.

Time here is not chronological -- memory is like that; and Peter Hicks' set has strategically placed furniture and props [desks, the famous viewing/coaching tower, a chalkboard showing the famous "wishbone formation", Coca-Cola and Golden Flake, etc.] that allow for fluid staging of these memories.

But it is Vigilant's script and the talented ensemble that give it vigor. Mr. Clevy, Mr. Bridges, and Mr. Lowe create vivid depictions of their assigned characters, stamping each of them with individual traits that credibly impact Coach Bryant.

At the center is Mr. Clark, who has played "the Bear" off and on for almost a decade. He appears so comfortable in Bryant's skin, that one imagines the man himself on the ASF stage. -- Throughout the play, Mr. Clark philosophizes with the confidence of a man who has lived a full life. His reflections on his mentors' significance, the many life lessons he inspired in his athletes, the value of family, the differentiation between "losing" and "loss", and the fact that "It doesn't cost anything to be nice, to be honest, and to be a man of your word", are things that any audience member can take to heart.