From the moment you enter the Edison Theatre and gaze upon the inventive "let's play ball" set by Scott C. Neale, you know you're in for a good time. Most of the stage floor is filled with an inviting baseball diamond. Our young protagonist, Joey (Kurt Hellerich), lives for the game. When his mother (Kelley Weber) chides, "There's more to life than baseball," Joey turns to the audience and incredulously asks, "Did she really just say that?" Although onstage narration has become an overused device in recent years, playwright Dietz employs this convention effectively and unobtrusively. Joey's comments mostly enhance, rather than intrude upon, the action.
In the background, beyond the baseball field, a small-town water tower is conspicuously atilt — warning us, perhaps, that the norm is out of kilter here. Sure enough, it is. We soon learn that Joey possesses a special power: In his hands a baseball card becomes a time machine. Eventually (though perhaps not soon enough, because the script is a little too leisurely about revving up) Joey will have cause to return to 1947 to be with Jackie Robinson (Reginald Pierre, aptly dignified) as the 28-year-old black athlete is teetering on the cusp of history. But Joey is no mere witness to Robinson's emergence on the national scene and to the abuses to which he will be subjected by racists. For when the lad awakens in '47, Joey is shocked to discover that his own skin color has turned from white to black. Now he too is the object of scorn.
I don't know how often this dramatic ploy is used nowadays, though it certainly created a furor back in 1961 when John Howard Griffin's memoir Black Like Me recounted how the author had altered his skin pigmentation in order to experience life in segregated Louisiana and Mississippi. But the student audience with whom I saw Jackie and Me was rapt.
Perhaps because the play is geared to a younger audience, it soft-pedals the raw ugliness of discrimination in 1947. Instead the script prefers to highlight acts of valor, like the day in Cincinnati when fellow Dodger Pee Wee Reese silenced a crowd of hecklers by putting his arm around Robinson's shoulder. When Branch Rickey (David Wassilak) suggests, "It's the unwritten rules that are written most deeply," even a child understands that Jackie and Me is commenting on the prejudice that fear engenders. As directed with affectionate verve by Tim Ocel, the production paints its story in broad strokes — which is perhaps what works best with young audiences. But the play succeeds in instilling us with admiration for a time when America was changed because a few brave citizens were willing to confront out national flaws head-on.
The Jackie Robinson narrative is much in vogue this year. Next month Ralph Kalish will reprise Winning History, his one-man play about Branch Rickey, at the Gaslight Theater.* Then in April, Harrison Ford portrays Rickey in 42, a new feature film whose title references Robinson's now-iconic uniform number. But you'll be hard-pressed to see this feel-good story told with more charm and bald emotion than is currently on display in Jackie and Me.
*Correction published 1/18/13: The original version of this review cited the incorrect venue for the upcoming run of Winning History. The play will be performed February 15-24 at the Gaslight Theater. The above version reflects the corrected text.