Phoenix: Unforgettable encounter with ‘Don’

By John Lyle Belden

Underlining the drama of “Halftime With Don,” a new play at the Phoenix Theatre, is the proposition – likely a fact – that America’s favorite sport is killing its players.

While Don Devers (an awesome performance by Bill Simmons) is fictional, the NFL heroes he mentions whose lives ended violently, often by suicide, were very real. Years after retiring from 10 seasons of pro football as a star defensive tackle, enduring, in his words, “a thousand car crashes a season,” Don’s body is in ruin with his brain succumbing to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Caused by long-term repeated head impacts, CTE symptoms include dementia, mood swings and violent impulses. It has been found, in autopsy, in numerous football players and other athletes.

About a week before the Super Bowl, devoted fan Ed Ryan (Michael Hosp) visits his idol in a meeting arranged by Don’s estranged daughter, Stephanie (Lauren Briggeman), and Ed’s wife, Sarah (Chelsea Anderson). Both women happen to be pregnant, with Stephanie due to deliver any day.

However, Ed finds that his hero, barely able to stand without a walker, spends all day in a reclining chair, a dozen pill bottles by his side, surrounded by what appears to be an endless supply of products he might have endorsed in his playing days – cans of Pringles chips and bottles of Gatorade. Don’s lifelong habit of writing Post-It notes (originally for motivation and inspiration) is now his lifeline, with little reminders of daily facts and random thoughts all around him. But when Don finds a note he wrote saying, “He’s the One,” he opens up to Ed, and in his moments of lucidity he knows how this young man will help him.

Hosp’s natural ability to play an aw-shucks type character suits him well here, while imbuing Ed with surprising depth. He finds himself in a situation befitting a madcap comedy, but with serious consequences, and nails the performance. Briggeman and Anderson are outstanding as well, with stormy Stephanie and sunny Sarah’s growing relationship a vital subplot.

We’ve come to expect brilliance from Simmons, and he does not disappoint. When Don is in pain, we feel it; when he innocently looks at a friend like they have never met, you fight the urge to speak up and remind him. Even when the focus is not on him, his presence is felt. Were this a Broadway stage, a Tony would be in order.

Written by Ken Weitzman, “Halftime With Don” is a National New Play Network “Rolling World Premiere,” meaning more than one NNPN theatre will produce it, each lending the drama different stylistic touches. Phoenix producer/director Bryan Fonseca, with set designer Daniel Uhde, made use of the open space of the theatre’s downstairs area, placing two small stages – one, Don’s living room; the other, Stephanie’s home – on opposite corners with an open path between. This helps focus the action with smooth transition between scenes, as well as close audience seating for an immersive experience.

A story that’s about far more than football and the man who played it, “Halftime With Don” runs through Feb. 4 at 749 N. Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair, near Mass. Ave.) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or visit www.PhoenixTheatre.org.

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