nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
April 26, 2012
I’m not really a football fan, finding it rather hard to take guys in spandex seriously. But there’s no need to be up on NFL history to enjoy Headstrong at the Ensemble Studio Theater. Under the guise of a tense family stand-off between a father and daughter, the play is ultimately a stimulating ethical debate about sport and science. Pondering whether heroism in the field is worth permanent brain trauma, Headstrong scores with taut directing by William Carden and great performances all around, though writer Patrick Link’s inconclusive ending is just a few yards shy of a satisfying touchdown at the goal line.
Duncan Troy (Ron Canada) is a legendary NFL linebacker, now retired and dedicated to uploading videos of his moments of glory onto YouTube. His daughter Sylvia (Nedra McClyde) was married to Ron Green, a promising Pro-Bowler, who recently committed suicide after an inexplicable and tragic downward spiral. When Nick Merritt (Alexander Gemignani) visits their household to request the donation of Ron’s brain to a foundation studying Post-Concussion Syndrome, Duncan and Sylvia are conflicted by the uncomfortable possibility that the sport that they love might have caused the death of a man that they loved. “Such a narrow line between what’s good for us and what kills us,” Duncan observes, as he obstinately stonewalls the request, in fear that the resulting safeguards might change the way his beloved game is played.
The stellar cast is anchored by the poignant and commanding central performances of Ron Canada as Duncan and Nedra McClyde as Sylvia. “You might say that the only thing you care about is winning,” she accuses him, “But what’s the point of winning if you can’t remember that you won?” Their fraught scenes are masterfully executed and intellectually engaging, but the real excitement in the play comes from the video of great football moments designed by David Tennent, which provoked spontaneous collective cries from the audience. For a play about the brutal physical consequences of football to a player’s brain, Headstrong is pretty cerebral, but that doesn’t make it any less thought-provoking.