Columbus Children’s Theatre’s thoughtful production of "Jackie & Me" looks at the familiar story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in baseball’s major leagues, from an unusual angle.
The two-act play, which runs about 100 minutes (including an intermission), focuses on Joey (Collin Grubbs), a preteen baseball player with anger-management issues — plus a gift for time travel, which he achieves by holding a baseball card.
When his teacher (Tameishia Peterson) assigns her class to choose a subject to discuss during a unit on black history, Joey picks Jackie Robinson (Eric Qualls) and is transported back to 1947 — the year that Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Brent Alan Burington) brought Robinson up to the major-league team.
Steven Dietz’s play, based on a book from Dan Gutman’s Baseball Card Adventures series, isn't subtle: The characters are either heroes or villains.
But this production, under the sure direction of William Goldsmith, fully rounds out characters who could be one-dimensional. Grubbs’ energetic, loose-limbed performance makes Joey appealing, where he could potentially prove annoying.
Qualls is restrained as Robinson, with an edge of repressed anger that tinges his nobility with humanity.
Jacob Cohen is amusing as Joey’s Brooklyn nemesis, Ant, who insults Joey and orders him around in the locker room until he begins to suspect that Joey might be an alien.
Particularly impressive in several roles are theater veterans Burington and Ken Erney. Among other roles, Burington shifts between an outspoken Rickey and an aging Babe Ruth; Erney, between a kindly present-day seller of baseball cards and a player unexpectedly supportive of Robinson.
These are all essentially good people — probably the hardest to play — but the two actors find depth in even the most minor of characters.
For this production, Columbus Children’s Theatre has collaborated with Short North Stage to use the Garden Theater. The more traditional space makes possible Chris Rusen’s eerie light effects for the time-traveling sequences, plus smooth scene-switching.
The play doesn’t shy from historically accurate racist language, but the use of offensive language isn't taken lightly and suggests possibilities for discussion.
Because of its length and subject matter, the production is most appropriate for students in higher elementary-school grades.
Quietly entertaining and lightly educational, the play doesn’t overwhelm the audience but instead opens an important period of history for further exploration.