“Everything’s white,” says C. Michael Wright, pointing to the set model for his new show “The Sweetest Swing in Baseball,” now playing at Milwaukee Chamber Theater. He goes on to explain the symbolism of the all-white art gallery and how it contrasts with the pastels of the mental institution, which plays a key role in the production. Wright is clearly proud of the design and the carefully thought-out meaning in the use of space and color.
Wright, who is MCT’s producing artistic director, as well as the director of “Baseball,” says that doing a play about baseball at the start of baseball season was coincidental. “I like a theme every season, and for our 35th anniversary season I wanted to celebrate artists,” he says.
MCT’s last production, “Duet for One,” featured a musician (as well as Wright’s return to the stage as an actor). “Baseball,” by contemporary playwright Rebecca Gilman, deals with painting: Artist Dana Fielding is so obsessed with what others think of her, both personally and professionally, that she’s driven to attempt suicide. Dana pretends that she’s baseball legend Darryl Strawberry, and she paints like the troubled sports star in order to force her insurance company to keep her there.
“This (script) spoke to me in a very personal way,” Wright says. “As artists, we have highs and lows, and it’s hard to have a sense of self and self-esteem. We’re so fragile.”
“The Sweetest Swing” gives the audience a glimpse into the vulnerable, dark side of public fame, adoration – and scrutiny. In these respects, there are parallels between the artist and the athlete, and Wright’s goal is to point out their effects on human fragility. “Anyone can blog today. Everybody’s a critic,” he says. “Artists need to pick who to listen to and remain true to their artistic vision.”
Dana and fellow patient Michael, who’s an alcoholic and gay, find a way to reinvent themselves as they attempt to work through their issues. Playwright Gilman is deliberate in her message of how defenseless and susceptible various populations are to the comments and actions of others. Through their states of “brokenness,” Dana and Michael find that they can once again become whole by redefining who they are – separately and together.
Wright says that having audiences contemplate what they’ve just seen in “Baseball” in terms of their own actions makes it an ideal theater experience.
“It’s so much about an artist’s life, and it’s also so much about a public figure’s life,” Wright says. “I want to get people thinking about what happens when we talk about another human being’s life. We’re all so vulnerable.”