Steppenwolf's basketball drama 'The Great Leap' impresses, though script misses a few shots
"The Great Leap" -- ★ ★ ★
The personal becomes very political in Lauren Yee's 2018 basketball drama "The Great Leap," now receiving a strong Chicago premiere by Steppenwolf Theatre. Yee skillfully weaves fact with fiction with "The Great Leap" to pull audiences in, yet the play's uncomfortable ending and familial plot holes keep it from fully satisfying.
Set in San Francisco and Beijing, "The Great Leap" explores the lives of three basketball-obsessed men by jumping back and forth in time between 1989 and 1971. At the center is Manford Lum (Glenn Obrero), a 17-year-old high school dropout who is known throughout the Bay Area as the best player in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Scrappy and full of energy, Lum bulldozes his way into the life of the brusque basketball coach Saul (Keith Kupferer). Saul is about to lead the University of San Francisco team in a "friendly" exhibition match against Beijing University, and Lum deploys all of his basketball prowess (along with loads of hilarious trash-talking) to get a spot on the team as a point guard.
Saul has a lot to prove since his coaching job is on the line. Saul also made an offhand boast that a Chinese basketball team would never be able to defeat an American one back in 1971, so he has the added pressure of living up to his published words.
Saul's coaching rival is Wen Chang (James Seol), who worked as an English translator to Saul during his 1971 visit to Beijing to coach players as part of the U.S.-Chinese "Ping-Pong diplomacy." Thanks to his peerless English translation skills, Chang was plucked out of being "re-educated" during China's Cultural Revolution. Chang then ran with China's Communist Party's directive to coach basketball in a long-game governmental mission of the pupil schooling the master.
With her main characters in "The Great Leap," Yee smartly plays up many clashing cultural views between the U.S. and China. Yet, the women in Yee's play feel undefined and underutilized. Such is the case with Manford's cousin Connie (Deanna Myers), who constantly nags him before abruptly becoming his biggest supporter. Yee's sketchy descriptions of Manford's late mother also feel more like a symbolic plot device than a real person.
Another questionable aspect of "The Great Leap" is how Yee ratchets up the drama by setting her play amid the student protests for democracy before the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Yee dramatically mythologizes an iconic and heavily censored moment of recent Chinese history in order to give her play a powerful ending, but it doesn't feel earned.
If parts of the script of "The Great Leap" disappoint, director Jesca Prudencio and her great cast and crew do their utmost to paper over those faults. Obrero, Kupferer and Seol inject lots of passion and humility into their performances, with a strong undercurrent of vulnerability amid so much confident machismo.
"The Great Leap" also visually impresses, especially with set designer Justin Humphres transforming Steppenwolf's intimate Upstairs Theatre to suggest a basketball court. Lighting designer Keith Parham and projection designer Rasean Davonte Johnson also work brilliantly in tandem with flashy effects that often evoke a video game. Sound designer/composer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca also hits all the right notes to play up the emotion and tension of each scene.
With "The Great Leap," it's clear that Yee wanted to play up the commonalities and differences of the U.S. and China through the two country's shared love of basketball. And if the play misses a few of its shots, Steppenwolf ultimately does it proud with an involving production that doesn't stint at all on acting or design talent.
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Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (no show Sept. 17), 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday (evening shows end Sept. 29), 2 p.m. Wednesday matinees begin Oct. 2; runs through Oct. 20
Running time: About two hours with intermission
Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking
Rating: For teens and older; contains adult subject matter and language