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Previews: 04/22/12- Close: 05/13/12 Headstrong
Reviewed for By: Aurin Squire

Gerry Goodstein ©2019  Nedra McClyde and Ron Canada

It's very difficult to write a compelling, theatrical piece about sports on small stage. Despite the obvious similarities of drama and characters that exist in both sports and performing arts, when you combine the two worlds, the stories often feel contrite, dumbed-down, and cliché. Yet playwright Patrick Link has proven that a successful small sports piece is not only possible, but also long overdue.

"Headstrong" Is a riveting, character-driven work of art. The piece is a must-see for anyone who has an interest in any form of competition. The writer manages to make the world of football players both unnecessarily tragic and universally heroic. The story revolves around the family of a retired NFL running back who committed suicide. The ex-wife played by the stunning Nedra McClyde and her father are a part of a football family that takes pride in being able to take a hit on and off-field and keep going. The heroically named "Troy" family represents the all-America, football/God/country earnest nature that attracts many people to football, religion, and the army. Duncan Troy is the name of a fictional great NFL linebacker and he's played with great endearment and care by Ron Canada.

The Troy family is living in the aftershocks of the suicide of their son-in-law when they are visited by an ex-football player working for a medical organization studying the effects of concussion on the brain. They want to use their recently deceased running back's brain to study. But the Troy family is reluctant to give legal permission because they want to remember the heroic acts on the field and not be used as a medical example of the horrors of football. The details of the story aren't that important because it's what the story touches on that is: football is a billion dollar industry and way of life for most of the United States. In many parts of the country, when a mother gives birth to a child they are handed a tiny helmet and mini-football as a symbol of his gladiator future in competitive sports. Football is not only a sport but also a mentality of toughness, camaraderie, competition, and Americana.

Gerry Goodstein ©2019  Nedra McClyde and Ron Canada

But the answers offered in "Headstrong" aren't as simple as removing football from schools and colleges or praising the ethical good it creates in the community. But the dangers of football touch on a deeper, much darker need in our society for heroic masochism. Left without organized competitive sports, kids can and have turned that instinct into violent and much more dangerous rituals like backyard wrestling, daredevil stunts, and "Jackass" style abuse. In some ways organized sports like football tame this youthful rage and reroutes it into a regulated and officiated leagues that begin when a child is as young as 4 or 5 and guides them into adulthood. This 'hero instinct' can then be used to train young men and women into being a good citizens, hard workers, and ethical people. But these same potential virtues are wrapped in the package physical punishment, massive injuries, concussions, and -in some cases- death. 

"Headstrong" poses a difficult question: what do we do with our instinctive desire to seek danger and our need for a healthy body and mind? It seems that one can't overwhelm the other. If our society childproofs everything and bans all potential forms of sports as dangerous, then millions of kids will just go underground and create sports just as dangerous without any regulation. If we merely encourage football as a great way of life, then we are knowingly allowing people to damage their brains and suffer severe consequences.

The story is very intricately drawn out by Link and the director William Carden has a sharp and clear vision for the show. The character arcs of the Troy family and the scientist unfold in surprising and shocking ways in only 90 minutes. Video designer David Tennent's embedded TV screens almost serve as an additional character in "Headstrong" replaying the glory days of the gridiron, flashing brutal hits before looping them back again like slow-motion car wrecks. It is a very difficult question we are faced with in the 21st century. Many are claiming that football is the next "Big Tobacco" scandal waiting to happen. In the last year, many media outlets are beginning to turn their attention to the dangers of competitive sports. All of them would be wise to go watch "Headstrong" and see how a brilliant writer, director, and cast show the complexities of this issue. 

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Ensemble Studio Theatre : 549 West 52nd Street