Here’s a true story: At age 14, Tami Maida earned a roster spot on her high school football team in Oregon. She played quarterback and took hits — so many that she later told a local newspaper she could recall only two plays that season when she didn’t take a hit.
That was in 1981. Her story was adapted into the 1983 TV movie “Quarterback Princess” (oy, that title!) starring Helen Hunt, and I have vivid memories of watching it. Friends, the entirety of the movie is on YouTube and I heartily encourage a watch if only to hear an outraged townswoman barely contain her composure as she utters the words “girl footballer.”
The outlines of that story are given new packaging in the drama “Tight End,” in a Chicago premiere from 20% Theatre Company from playwright Rachel Bykowski, who travels over much of the territory covered in “Quarterback Princess” but with far less agility — both in terms of how the story unfolds and the issues at its core.
Bykowski keeps the cast small, which can be a smart move in terms of getting a script produced, but it noticeably limits and confines the world of the play. Ash (Bryce Saxon) is the 14-year-old daughter of a one-time high school football star in a small Midwestern town. Dad died a few years back after deliberately driving into a wall. Now Ash and her mom (Rachel Mock) must negotiate this legacy as they move on with their lives, and for Ash that means pushing hard for a spot on the football team, despite resistance from the coach (Patrick Pantelis) and the quarterback (Erich Peltz) who eventually becomes her biggest advocate.
We follow Ash’s trajectory over four years of high school, from benchwarmer to finally getting her shot playing tight end in actual games. She’s suddenly become the best player on the team by senior year, without much groundwork getting us there. Sports movies rely on the montage-as-expositional-shortcut and Bykowski hasn’t found a suitable substitute for the stage. But the bigger issue is this: Who is Ash beyond her moodiness and drive? Saxon’s performance has flush-faced energy but there’s not much depth or nuance.
If we had a better sense of Ash’s internal monologue, it would go a long way, but there is something flat and blunt and clumsy about the way her story plays out. Ironically, it is the inner life of her male teammate, with his own stress points — economically portrayed by Peltz — who comes across as more fully-developed and three-dimensional. Peltz is the best thing going in this production from director Kallie Noelle Rolison, largely because he gives a performance that feels true and complicated.
There’s something deeper hampering the play, and it goes back to script’s similarities to “Quarterback Princess.” All these decades later, we think and talk differently about gender roles — and what the very idea of gender even means or is — than we did in 1983. And yet “Tight End” seems uninterested in acknowledging or examining that. The play feels dated and doesn’t spark the kind of thought-provoking ideas that feel of the moment. Is Ash or anyone in her orbit having conversations that move beyond the notions of gender binary? No — and maybe the same is true in a good chunk of America. But without some sense of what football even means to Ash, why she’s so drawn to the sport (outside of her daddy issues) and how it makes her feel to play, it all feels a bit too vague.
The very existence of the internet should (but doesn’t) automatically take this story into a different realm. Millennials have easy access to information. A lot of information. So while Ash and those around her pretend her situation is eye-poppingly novel, it’s actually pretty strange that it never occurs to them to Google “female football players.” What they would find is that it may not be common, but it’s not unusual either. According to USA Football, in 2015 some 25,000 girls played football at the youth level. Doesn’t mean it’s easy. Or not a story worth telling over and over again.
Review: “Tight End” (2 STARS)
When: Through June 3
Where: The Buena at Pride Arts Center, 4147 N. Broadway
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 800-737-0984 or www.pridefilmsandplays.com