In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

From left, Peter Reeves, Mary MacDonald Kerr and Nicholas Harazin play patients in a mental hospital in "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball."

The Chamber Theatre "Swings" and Renaissance Theaterworks collects

Professional athletes' contracts often contain clauses that prohibit them from skydiving, motorcycle riding and other dangerous activities. Have to keep that valuable body intact.

Professional singers often baby their voices in the midst of a demanding performance schedule. Have to hit those notes every night.

It's understandable that visual artist Dana Fielding refuses to swallow psychotropic drugs in Rebecca Gilman's play "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball." As unhappily depressed as she may be, Fielding is acutely aware that her artistic identity as well as her livelihood rely on the coherence and integrity of her brain.

The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opened a production of "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball" last weekend. Later in this column I will preview the Renaissance Theaterworks staging of "American Fiesta," which opens Friday.

Playwright Gilman establishes a broadly ambitious and worthwhile topic in "Swing" -- how artists create and non-artists influence them. The latter would be critics, business associates, romantic partners and friends.

The play begins with Fielding brooding in a back room during the opening reception for her new show at a major gallery. Criticism of her work is messing with her head, emotionally and artistically. Once a commercially successful painter, Fielding is in a sales and popularity slump, and she is sliding into a depression so deep, a suicide attempt is in her future.

The table has been set for a stimulating exploration of the fragility of the creative spark. Perhaps the uncomfortable debate about the possible relationship between artistic ability and mental instability can also be raised.

Mary MacDonald Kerr's quietly sensitive and understated portrayal of Fielding heightens the anticipation in the Chamber production. But the script lets down MacDonald Kerr and her fine cast mates.

Gilman employs a plot device that blurs the play's focus and takes the story in multiple directions.

Fielding's unsuccessful suicide attempt lands her in a mental hospital that she prefers over her solitary existence in her apartment. The artist's flimsy health insurance places a 10 day limit on hospitalization for suicide patients, so she assumes the identity of baseball slugger Darryl Strawberry to obtain a more psychotic diagnosis from her supervising psychiatrist. The Strawberry ruse explains the play's title.

"Swing" becomes as much about a white woman trying to act like a street-talking African-American male athlete as it is about the creation of art. Add the American health insurance crisis as another issue. The blatherings of a criminally insane stalker further muddles the story.

In a cast that includes Peter Reeves, Linda Stephens and Laura Gray, Nicholas Harazin etches a particularly sweet and sensitive portrait of an alcoholic in rehab who befriends Fielding. "The Sweetest Swing in Baseball" continues through May 2 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center.

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