SALT LAKE CITY — As someone who has no knowledge about baseball (beyond Babe Ruth), I did not know what to expect from the world premiere of Near Mint, written by Lane Richins. However, no in-depth knowledge of baseball is necessary to enjoy this production and its endearing characters.
Near Mint opens with Pepper Crawford (played by Natalie Keezer) and “Cracker” Jack Patterson (played by Calbert Beck), hosting a radio show in Anaheim (KHAT AM 1370) where they spend their time taking calls as they chat about baseball and baseball cards. Jack has his own store where he trades and sells baseball cards, and he gets into a conversation with Simon (played by Daisy Blake Perry) about a 30-year-old card in his possession of Sandy Koufax (played by Tom Roche) that he never intends to part with.
The play transitions from the radio booth into the store, which is easy to do considering the simplicity of Allen Smith‘s set design. The stage is divided into four sections: the radio booth, the store, the living room of Kristin Mitchell (played by Alison Lente) and Sandra Mitchell (played by Sasha Medura), and a small bench situated under the radio booth that goes unused until the end of the play. Behind the main set are two large black cutouts that look like the walls of a baseball stadium. Director Barb Gandy has her actors make excellent use of the space, where after the very first scene change, Beck positions himself close to the ground so that he can envision a baseball diamond being painted onto the floor of the store (after he tears up the carpet). He suggests that when customers enter the store, the sound of a baseball crack and an audience cheering will play instead of a normal bell. When the stranger (played by Perry) enters the store, Crawford bellows “crack!” and then she and Jack begin to run excitedly around the store cheering.
The strength of the play is in the characters and the actors’ believable chemistry. Pepper and Jack are childhood friends who have their own secret handshake and have a tenderness to them that is real, thanks to the strong performances from Keezer and Beck. When Pepper, Jack, Kristin and Sandra are in the store together, it is revealed that Jack and Kristin are actually neighbors and Sandra goes to the store in the afternoons. These people feel like they know everything about each other. Beck gives a heartwarming performance, playing an ex-baseball player who was traded three times in one year, has visited every stadium in the US as both a fan and a player and just really loves baseball. For the better part of the play, Beck is the comedic center cracking many of the jokes and having down to earth interactions with the other characters.
Medura is the comedic champ, though, making Sandra hilarious in a way very few children characters are. There is a scene, after Jack has asked Kristin out (who initially declined) where Sandra is trying to convince her mother to go out with him. She has his phone number memorized, along with the numbers of four other men in the neighborhood. When Kristin asks, “Why would these men give you their number?” Sandra replies, “I’m persistent.” The pair go back and forth when finally Sandra calls Jack and sets up the date. Sandra strikes this wonderful, and often difficult, balance of creating a genuinely precocious child without sounding like a bitter adult. In Medura’s performance, Sandra is assertive about what she thinks and wants, while maintaining her perspective of an 11-year-old child.
The best scene in the play is between Jack and Kristin after Sandra has badly injured herself after a bad call by Jack during a game. The scene reveals much about Kristin’s financial struggles, her widowhood, and how she has to make sacrifices to take care of her and her daughter. This lengthy scene gave the characters time to learn more about each other and have honest conversations about earlier events and themselves. It also permits the audience to see Sandra interacting with Jack one-on-one, where she proudly talks about her black eye and is nonplussed about her dislocated shoulder being in a sling. It is the compelling character interactions that make live theatre so interesting.
One inadequacy of Near Mint is Savannah Garlick’s lighting design. For example, in the early part of the play, when the focus is on Sandra and her mom Kristin, there is a single white light that illuminates them and their set, which feels really intimate. But when other characters enter the scene later on, there is more light used that spills over onto other parts of the set. The only lighting that is applied consistently is the red/pinkish light that is on whenever Crawford and Jack are hosting their radio program.
Additionally, the many wardrobe changes in Maddley Howell Wilkins’s costume design did little to establish the time period of the play, though the sheer number of costumes for a small-cast play is impressive. Richins’s script does the most work to establish the setting the early 1980s with its cultural references to Neil Simon, Terms of Endearment, and “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, but they do little to ground the story in reality. Yes, Sandra and Kristin have a landline, and Kristin wears her hair in youthful looking, but nothing else feels like a trip to the early ’80s. Also, Kristin’s styling made her physically appear to be Sandra’s older sister, and not her mother. It took me the better part of the play to accept that Kristin was not a very tall teenager, but a grown woman.
The main reason to see this play are the actors and their compelling portrayal of characters who really care about each other and their common passion of baseball. Near Mint has a touching story about parent/child relationships, friendships, baseball and what it means to love something or someone. While some of the technical aspects of the production felt like the background noise of the crowd at a stadium, the Near Mint is still as fine way of a way to spend a spring evening as attending a baseball game.
Note: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated the name of one of the characters (Sandra) and inaccurately quoted her. This has been corrected. Also, an earlier version of the review incorrectly stated that the play referred to fictional baseball players when these players are, in fact, real. This statement has been deleted from the review. UTBA apologizes for the factual errors to Pygmalion Theatre Company, the artists, and Mr. Richins.