Theater Review: THE GREAT LEAP (Lyric Stage Company of Boston)

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by Lynne Weiss on February 27, 2023

in Theater-Regional


The Great Leap opens with hearty humor and carries its audience along in an absorbing story until a profound poignancy begins to permeate the senses. Tyler Simahk plays Manford “the most feared [basketball] player in Chinatown” as a brash and determined 17 year old who opens the action by trying to talk San Francisco University basketball coach Saul (Barlow Adamson) into letting him play for SFU against Beijing University in an upcoming exhibition game.

Coach Saul, who visited China in 1971, thinks he knows what the Chinese don’t know about basketball. At the time of his first visit, China’s players waited their turn on the court and stood by respectfully when men on the opposing team took a shot. Players were chosen for speed and fitness rather than height: most were former gymnasts. But in 1989, when the play opens, the Chinese approach to basketball has changed, unbeknownst to Saul. Other things have changed as well. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent visit has inspired street demonstrations that will, before the play is over, culminate in the famous Tiananmen Square protests.

Lauren Yee‘s well-written play, beautifully directed by Michael Hisamoto, is filled with surprising reversals and satisfying moments. Yes, it is filled with laughs, but that laughter, as Hisamoto explained in the audience talk back following a recent performance, draws the audience in and opens viewers to the moving revelations that occur later in the show. Gary Thomas Ng (Wen Chang) is the emotional heart of this play. He first appears as the humble interpreter for Saul’s 1971 visit to Beijing, sparking much amusement with his efforts to translate Saul’s expletive-laden slang. In the course of the play, he shifts skillfully from dialogue to monologues in which he offers his observations on the distinctions between Chinese and American perspectives, and it his final monologue, in which he explores the emotional costs of the choices he has made to ensure his own survival, that moves the audience to rise to its feet at the conclusion of this performance. Jihan Haddad plays Connie, Manford’s 25-year-old Chinese-American cousin, who visited China as a college student. Her supporting role is crucial to giving Manford a chance to air his own concerns, though it will be a while before we fully understand that Manford’s reason for wanting to play with the SFU team is far larger than his desire to shine on the court.

Viewers entering the theater will wonder how a basketball game will be enacted on a set with no backboard or hoop or how the intimate stage of the Lyric will be used to convey a major street demonstration. Both requirements are fully realized, thanks to the talents of Baron E. Pugh (Scenic Design), Michael Clark Wonson (Lighting Design), and Elizabeth Cahill (Sound Design). The lighting was effective in marking the transitions from Wen Chang’s dialogue to monologue even while he is still sitting or standing next to Saul, and the period-appropriate costuming (Seth Bodie) helps the audience keep track of whether it is 1989 or 1971—and generates another round of laughter when Saul appears with his mutton-chop sideburns and paisley jacket.

photos by Mark S. Howard

The Great Leap
Lyric Stage Company of Boston
140 Clarendon Street in Boston
ends on March 19, 2023
for tickets, call 617.585.5678 or visit Lyric

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