“Requiem for a Heavyweight” Pulls No Punches @ The Artistic Home

3 stars out of 4

“There’s eight champions in this business. Everyone else is an also-ran.” Requiem for a Heavyweight is Rod Serling’s ode to the also-rans and an indictment of the world that creates them. Though the overstuffed stage script starts wearing at the seams at times, the intimate Artistic Home space serves the material well in this revival, and Mark Pracht as washed up fighter Mountain McClintock bares the heart of lost man-child trying to hang onto his pride. A talented and committed cast captures the seedy world that Serling envisioned and director John Mossman deftly employs the rhythms of the boxing world to propel the story to a surprisingly satisfying ending. 

Originally presented as a television drama in 1956, and then as a 1962 film, Rod Serling’s play did not reach the Broadway stage until 1985, when it closed after just three performances. The play is too long and repetitious, though Rod Serling clearly knew the world he was creating, with its seedy bars with “punchy” fighters recounting past ring glories and its cast of underworld thugs and ruthless promoters and managers taking advantage of fighters who give up everything for a shot at a championship. John Mossman’s production at Artistic Home plays into the strengths of the play, with detailed performances even in minor roles and a clear-eyed view of the brutality of not just of the sport but those who live off the sweat and blood of the fighters. Kevin Hagan’s scenic design places most of the action onto a raised platform resembling a boxing ring, surrounded by the audience who take ringside seats in front of faceless, cutout crowds reminiscent of a George Bell painting. Kevin Rolf’s properties lend period and boxing detail. Costume designer Zachery Wagner captures the shabby elegance of the middle-men, the garish finery of those who oversee the brutality, and the working-class decorum of the fighters themselves. The lighting design by Mark J. Bracken, Jr. features the interplay between dimly lit corners and unforgivingly harsh incandescent fixtures. The sound design accentuates the drumbeats of gloves hitting bags and mitts, providing a backdrop to Mountain’s inexorable decline. This is reinforced by Mossman’s own aural and visual boxing tableaux, which regularly remind us that it is the fighters who toil to make a living for themselves and all the hangers-on that populate their world.

The play begins with a training session that segues into Mountain McClintock’s final, bloody fight, a device that shows the still-fit and enthusiastic fighter seeing his dream literally beaten out of him in a stylized sequence that captures the adage that everyone has a plan until they get hit. Mark Pracht, as Mountain, embodies the childlike naivete of a man who has given everything to the world and the people he loves, without being able to recognize for himself that it is slipping away as he ages. Pracht, with cauliflower ears and a mask of scars, gives Mountain the dignity he has earned by playing by the rules, never allowing the pitiably gullible fighter to slip into pitifully damaged character he could become. By contrast, Patrick Thornton, as Mountain’s desperately duplicitous manager Maish, becomes almost pitiful as he lashes out at everyone else rather than taking responsibility for his predicament and salvaging his own pride and his fighter’s chance at a future. As Grace, the woman who tries to help Mountain, first by finding a job, then by not allowing himself to lose himself, Annie Hogan keeps her character from veering into saccharine sweetness by allowing insecurity to seep into her eagerness to save others. Hogan shows her character’s quest to find her own meaning, which makes her relationship with Mountain more realistic and tragic for its futility. Todd Wojcik as Army, Mountain’s longtime trainer and friend, is stalwart in his friendship, while revealing the self-loathing and doubt that keep his character in a world that he sees too clearly. As the oily, fast-talking manager Leo, who is trying to acquire Mountain from Maish, Reid Coker is spot-on, bursting into his scenes with false bravado and outstaying his welcome on nervous energy, coincidentally also lending some much-needed levity. In the thankless role of Golda, a woman who can’t afford morality and is drawn to Maish for reasons that are unclear, Laura Coleman leans hard into the hopes that the character is not ready to leave behind and creates a surprisingly warm and engaging character. Swelling the ranks of the boxing world are David Vogel as the terrifyingly dapper gangster Max, to whom Maish owes money, Mike Rogalski as the genial and clear-headed doctor who nonchalantly pronounces the end of Mountain’s career, and John LaFlamboy, as the shark-like, ever-grinning showman Perelli. Finally, the ensemble of actors (Charlie Blumenthal, Christian Colucci, Sean Harklerode, Ernest Henton, and Ron Russell) who portray fighters, thugs and various other characters who flow through Serling’s world deserve credit for slipping in and out of roles, and grounding each scene in boxing gyms, back alleys and bars, showing how many people are complicit in this world that ultimately only pays the bills for a few, who don’t have to live in it.

Though the stage version of Requiem for a Heavyweight is not as tightly scripted as the screenplay that first introduced the story, Serling’s sympathy for his characters and his knowledge of the time and place they inhabit still make for a powerful allegory for the dehumanizing effects of greed. Like the rare champions, only a few can profit from the labors of the many, and desperation trumps loyalty and affection in this brutal world. Under John Mossman’s clear and empathetic direction, Mark Pracht’s towering, wounded Mountain McClintock learns to take pride in his humanity rather than his record, showing the character through a more contemporary lens while still immersing the audience in the seedy boxing world that Serling painted so vividly. The large, talented cast and immersive design put the audience ringside for a story that, while not a knockout, still packs a powerful punch.

Requiem for a Heavyweight runs through March 31, 2019, at The Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand Ave. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Regular prices are $34 (seniors and students $20 on Thursdays and Sundays). Tickets are available at http://www.theartistichome.org or by calling 866-811-4111.

Photo by Joe Mazza, Brave Lux, L-R: Anne Hogan, Mark Pracht

Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.